The Russian energy giant Gazprom publicly renewed its interest in buying Centrica yesterday, two months after its initial overture was effectively rebuffed amid fears that the UK could become too dependent on Russia for its gas.
Speaking on the sidelines of the annual Russian Economic Forum in London, Aleksander Medvedev, the company's deputy chief executive, disclosed that Centrica was on Gazprom's "watch list" and that it remained keen to capture 20 per cent of the UK gas market by 2015.
Although he insisted there were "no talks" with Centrica at the moment, he suggested they were only a matter of time away.
"Besides Centrica, we are analysing other targets in the UK [including, separately, Scottish Power, he said]. But yes, I can't hide that Centrica is a potential acquisition target for us. With our current financial strength, it's very difficult to find a company that's not on our watch list."
He also said Britain was a "lead destination" for a new gas pipeline which Gazprom is building under the Baltic Sea.
Mr Medvedev accused the British press of whipping up "hysteria" over the Centrica issue. "They keep writing that the Vikings are at our door! Well, the Vikings have been here for quite some time."
His comments came as the Government seemed to soften its stance on the takeover, hinting it might be ready to sign off on a Gazprom bid after all.
Sharing a platform with Mr Medvedev, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Alan Johnson told the forum: "In the UK we welcome companies who play by the rules and want to operate in our competitive, liberalised market."
Although he went on to inject a note of caution, talking about the UK's preference for "global consumers champions, not national champions" (the Russian government owns 50 per cent of Gazprom plus one share), his position was far more upbeat than the official government line two months ago.
"Whatever the difficulties and challenges of globalisation, the answers will not be found in the stagnant waters of protectionism," Mr Johnson said.
Gazprom, the world's biggest gas producer, is keen to start selling Siberian gas direct to consumers and regards Centrica, which supplies gas to 13 million UK homes, as a swift way into the market. But its expansion plans remain controversial.
Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer specialising in energy issues who also represents the oil giant Yukos, urged the Government yesterday to be cautious when it came to any Gazprom bid for Centrica.Reuse content