Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French oil giant Total was killed Monday night when the business jet he was flying in crashed upon takeoff at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. In addition to de Margerie, 63, four others perished in the accident, including three crew members and the driver of a snow removal machine with which the Falcon 50 jet collided.
According to reports, the plane’s landing gear hit the snow plow on liftoff, causing an engine fire. As the pilot attempted to turn back and land, the plane crashed in a fireball.
Total has confirmed the accident in a statement.
It’s a sad end to the life of one of Big Oil’s most colorful leaders. De Margerie had worked at Total since 1974. He became head of Middle East operations in 1995, then boss of exploration and production in 2002. He served as CEO since 2007. He leaves behind a wife and children.
Immediately recognizable for his bristle-brush moustache, De Margerie was gregarious and outspoken. I interviewed him in 2010 for this feature story and found him to be a refreshing departure from the typically close-guarded Big Oil boss.
Chatty and blunt, De Margerie didn’t hide his conviction that Peak Oil was a fast approaching reality, insisting at the time that the world’s producers would be hard pressed to ever grow past 95 million barrels per day. He may have revised that number upwards a bit in recent years, considering the booming development of tight oil in the United States, but his dogma remained the same as then: “There will be a lack of sufficient energy available,” he said.
Because of this belief, De Margerie was tireless in grabbing new oil and gas opportunities for Total — while they were still available. De Margerie ventured out from Total’s headquarters in La Défense, the west Paris business district, to woo a who’s who of presidents, prime ministers, strongmen and dictators in places like Iraq, Iran, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Yemen, Angola and Burma.
But none of De Margerie’s relationships have been more important than with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This year De Margerie negotiated a venture with Lukoil to drill for tight oil in Siberia. And with Russia’s Novatekand China’s CNPC, Total is developing a $27 billion natural gas megaproject on the Yamal Peninsula. As De Margerie told Reuters this year, ”Can we live without Russian gas in Europe? The answer is no. Are there any reasons to live without it? I think – and I’m not defending the interests of Total in Russia – it is a no.”
I asked him in 2010 whether it was simply the case that international oil companies have no choice but to make deals with despots. “Bloody right!” he exclaimed. “Because we have not oil or gas. […] This is why the French companies are always looking for partnerships.”
Sometimes he may have even crossed the line. In March 2007, a month after taking over as CEO, De Margerie was hauled in by French authorities for 36 hours of interrogation over a $2 billion deal with Iran in 1997 to develop its massive Persian Gulf gas field. In a 2007 interview with Petroleum Intelligence, De Margerie confirmed that he authorized payments of $40 million (for consulting and lobbying efforts) to middlemen–allegedly associates of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and his son. When Iran is someday welcomed back into the brotherhood of nations, you can bet Total will be ready to build it some LNG projects.
Because De Margerie was such a wildly effective dealmaker over the past decade, he leaves Total in an enviable position. The company has arguably the best portfolio of development projects among the super-majors, with particular emphasis on deepwater developments in Angola. Despite some delays completing error-prone megafields like Kazakhstan’s Kashagan, these new ventures are ready to goose Total’s output significantly. Total will likely add 500,000 bpd of production by the end of 2017, outstripping all the big European oil companies by a long shot and resulting in 2.8 million bpd of production by then. Free cash flow is expected to blossom from $3 billion last year to $8 billion in 2015 and $15 billion in 2017. Bernstein Research analyst Oswald Clint, in a research note last month, called Total his favorite stock pick among the European super-majors.
De Margerie could have lived a very different kind of high life. When signing agreements he preferred to make toasts with single-malt Scotch — a rebuke of sorts to his patrimony: His grandfather founded Taittinger Group (as in Champagne). De Margerie could have been a king of brut. Instead, he became a prince of crude.