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New Threat to Yukos Licenses Issued

Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev said Saturday that Yukos' main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, could lose its licenses over what he termed "rather serious" technical violations.

Yugansk, which pumps 1 million barrels of crude per day, is already facing the loss of its licenses over unpaid taxes.

Trutnev's comments came two days after Interfax reported an unnamed government source as saying that Yugansk, slated for sale to cover Yukos' multibillion-dollar back tax debt, could be sold for just over $4 billion -- about one-quarter of what industry analysts have said is the unit's fair value.

The only clear on-the-record denial of the report came from Federal Property Fund spokesman Vladimir Zelentsov, who on Friday called it "groundless."

Zelentsov told NTV on Friday that Yugansk could be sold off by the end of November.

Yukos shares on the RTS closed Friday down 7.61 percent at $4.25, as fears grew that Yugansk would be sold off at a bargain-basement price.

Production licenses in the Russian oil industry are typically very technically complicated.

Some of the most common license violations include falling behind on production schedules and excessive flaring of associated gas, a byproduct of oil extraction. Russian oil companies often burn this gas rather than sell it, if they cannot transport it via Gazprom's pipeline network.

Licenses also tend to specify the number of wells that companies are obliged to have working on any given field -- a clause that is often hard to comply with due to fields' commercial and geological requirements.

Trutnev said Saturday that the Yugansk case was not unique.

An inspection of Yukos licenses last year by the ministry failed to turn up any serious violations. It was unclear Sunday what significant changes could have occurred since then.

Last November, President Vladimir Putin said that recalling licenses from Yukos "would give the impression that the state was trying to shut down the company."

Earlier this month, the ministry warned Yukos that 21 licenses could be withdrawn over the nonpayment of current taxes, and that another five licenses were at risk due to technical violations, Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin said Sunday.

The ministry has given Yukos until January to pay off its current tax debts. The oil major has said it has not been able to pay due to a crippling accounts freeze.

By law, license holders are given three months to correct the situation before a license can be withdrawn.

The accounts freeze has also led to problems for Yukos units in paying utility bills. Yugansk has narrowly avoided having its power reduced by paying off an outstanding electricity bill, Reuters reported.

(The Moscow Times 18.x.04)

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