Senior Russian officials threatened on Thursday to claim damages from Anglo-Russian oil producer TNK-BP for spills in Siberia and raised questions about the company's generous dividend policy, according to a report.
Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Yuri Trutnev, who flew over TNK-BP's Samotlor field, told a government meeting chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that he ordered a regulator to file a lawsuit against TNK-BP, Reuters reported.
Trutnev gave pictures of the spill to Putin and said that TNK-BP reported 784 accidents in 2011 compared with around 20 by its rival, LUKOIL, and blamed the company's investment policy.
"The main reason is the poor state of the pipelines. They have enough resources to increase the investment threefold and fix the pipelines in five to seven years," Trutnev said, according to the meeting's transcript published on a government website.
Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said the company's dividend payout was too generous.
"The dividend policy of this company is very different from the dividend policy of our other companies, both private and state," Shmatko said. "In 2011 almost all the profit the owners paid out as dividends, almost $8 billion."
Putin asked the officials to "act in line with the law."
"We need to meet the management and shareholders and negotiate using all the instruments provided by the law," he said.
The shares of Moscow-traded TNK-BP closed down 4.5% after the comments, underperforming the broader market, which was down only 0.3%.
The shares of oil major BP, which owns half of TNK-BP, were down 1.3%.
TNK-BP accounts for 29% of BP's total production and 27% of its reserves. Dividends from jointly controlled companies make up about 14% of BP's profit.
The threat will add to TNK-BP's legal problems and represents a new headache for BP, which failed last year to secure a lucrative deal with state-controlled oil major Rosneft .
The attack also took place in the absence of the energy tsar, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who was in the United States for meetings on a new $500 billion venture between Rosneft and ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil has effectively replaced BP in the Arctic exploration deal with Rosneft.
The attack also occurred during an intense power struggle as rival factions eye key energy posts in the new government ahead of a cabinet reshuffle later this year when Putin steps down as prime minister.
TNK-BP said in February it would raise capital expenditure by 17% in 2012, but would not change its dividend policy.
The Natural Resources ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that "Trutnev deemed TNK-BP's ecological safety work unsatisfactory," after he visited the Western Siberia Khanty-Mansiisk region.
TNK-BP said on Wednesday that "historical problems with the region's pollution are well-known," adding that it was "open for cooperation."