Exxon Corp. and Mobil Corp. yesterday cleared the next-to-last hurdle confronting their proposed $82.5 billion merger when European regulators approved the deal after imposing conditions that analysts said were relatively minor.
The merger is still pending before the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is expected to demand deeper concessions before approving the creation of Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil firm. To lessen the companies' combined market power, the FTC is likely to require them to sell a refinery and hundreds of service stations in the Northeast.
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, yesterday gave its blessing to two proposed mergers in the rapidly consolidating global oil industry--Exxon-Mobil and BP Amoco PLC's proposed acquisition of Atlantic Richfield Co.
In the case of Exxon and Mobil, the European regulators were content with a modest sale of facilities. "The U.S. regulators are looking for a pound of flesh, and their European counterparts took about four ounces," said Fadel Gheit, an analyst with Fahnestock & Co.
The EU approval is not expected to alter settlement talks between Exxon and Mobil and the FTC that have stretched on for months.
Attorneys for the commission can sue to block the merger if they believe it is bad for competition and could harm consumers, although such an all-out legal war is not considered likely. The agency is demanding painful divestitures, but reportedly not enough to cause the companies to abandon their plans.
"Exxon and Mobil always knew there was no way they weren't going to do this deal," said one person familiar with the talks.
The companies had hoped to conclude their deal by today, in time to be included in third-quarter earnings reports. While negotiators are meeting daily and are optimistic about an imminent settlement, there are many details still to resolve. Among the thornier questions the FTC is asking the companies: Who will buy the divested assets, and how quickly?
The companies are under pressure to reach a settlement with the FTC so they can begin realizing an estimated $3 million a day in reduced costs from the combination of their businesses. "Time is money," said Gheit.
As many as 9,000 jobs will be eliminated when Exxon, based in Irving, Tex., and Mobil, headquartered in Fairfax, combine. Mobil's Fairfax offices will be the center of the combined companies' marketing and refining operations.
The concessions made by the two companies to the EU include Mobil's agreement to sell its 30 percent interest in its European joint-venture fuels business with BP. As a result, the Mobil brand of gasoline will virtually disappear from Europe, but analysts said that BP was already the more prominent brand on the gas stations that the joint venture operated.
"The big sign on the stations was BP," said oil industry analyst Adam E. Sieminski of BT Alex. Brown. "Mobil got the footnote."
In other concessions, Mobil will sell its 28 percent interest in Aral, a German joint-venture marketing company that operates gasoline stations primarily in Germany, and a portion of its pipeline capacity serving Gatwick Airport near London. Both Mobil and Exxon will sell a portion of their lubricant-manufacturing capacity, but the merged company will retain a substantial position in lubricant manufacturing in Europe and "will remain the worldwide leader in this business segment," according to a joint news release.
Both companies will also sell natural-gas marketing assets in Europe.