Total to continue work in Iran, Myanmar

Total CEO Christophe de Margerie, in an interview with newspaper Le Monde, has affirmed that Total will continue to work in Iran and Myanmar despite pressure from government and NGOs.

Eric Watkins
Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 10 -- Total SA Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, has affirmed that his company will continue to work in Iran and Myanmar despite pressure coming from government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

In response to a request by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who asked Total to freeze all of its investments in Myanmar, De Margerie said it would be "provocative" to invest in that country today. But, he noted that Total's investments "date back to the 1990s and there have not been any new ones. We have been asked not to talk about our activities. I find that is very good."

De Margerie also commented on requests by NGOs to withdraw from Myanmar, "We listen to [NGOs], but they do not decide what the group does. Total will not get out."

Noting that his firm was awarded the Helen Keller humanitarian prize 2 years ago, De Margerie said NGOs vary in their perception of his firm's contributions to rights issues. Even the opposition in Myanmar has not sought Total's departure from the country, he added.

Referring to recent demonstrations in Rangoon, De Margerie said, "We did not wait for this crisis to become involved locally and [to] support activities that are in keeping with our code of conduct, which bans forced labor." Total has "intervened massively with the junta in the past to avoid these blunders," he said.

Responding to questions about legal cases against Total in connection with forced labor in Myanmar, De Margerie said both suits filed against the company were dismissed. "There is no forced labor at our facilities."

De Margerie also dismissed suggestions that the company is indirectly supporting the military regime through Yadana, which allegedly brings the state $500 million/year, saying all companies that pay taxes could face that type of charge.

"These taxes (30%) are paid by Total as well as by its three partners: Chevron, PTTEP (Thailand) and the Burmese national company."

However, he insisted that, "Total, no more so than any other company, cannot ask the government what it does with that money. Yadana earned the state a total of 350 million euros in 2006. The [Myanmar] government would have earned this revenue regardless of whether the shareholder was Total or a Chinese, Indian, Thai, or South Korean company.

Turning to Iran, De Margerie acknowledged that "there are differences between the current government and the international community." As for Pars LNG, however, he said it is a very important LNG project and one the company has been working on for 10 years.

"It has to be reviewed; its costs have skyrocketed. It is clear that before we begin, we shall take the political context and the nuclear crisis into account. The question does not arise today [because] the contract does not exist."

De Margerie said pressure from the US over Iran is "very strong" but that Total, like any other oil company, has its own interests to consider. "No country, regardless of how powerful it might be, can unilaterally decide where an oil company can invest," he said. "It is up to the company to assess the risks."

He noted the demands of politicians, but said they are conflicting. "Demands cannot be made to have oil prices under control and at the same time push producer countries to shut off the taps. This oil—we are required to go get it where it is."

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

More in General Interest