A Moscow court has frozen the bank accounts of the major production subsidiaries of the Russian oil giant Yukos, a step that could force a shutdown of its pumps in as little as two weeks, Yukos said Thursday.
The account freeze could clear the way for authorities to seize the company's prime production subsidiary to settle a back-tax bill, according to company officials and financial analysts.
A spokesman for the Prosecutor's General's Office would not discuss the court's decision, which appeared to undercut a statement by President Vladimir Putin Tuesday that Russian oil production would continue to increase.
"Stopping production is a matter of days" away, said company spokesman Alexander Shadrin in an interview.
The price of benchmark U.S. crude for October delivery rose Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange as traders reacted to the Yukos news. By the close, the price was up 6 cents from Wednesday to $44.06 a barrel. Earlier Thursday, oil reached as high as $45.37.
The market has been reacting to developments in the Yukos case because world oil production is near capacity at a time when demand is rising. Traders are concerned that any supply disruption could have a significant impact.
Analysts said Yukos appeared to be trying to get the Putin administration to pressure prosecutors to back away from the accounts freeze.
Earlier this year, a Russian court ruled that Yukos, whose biggest shareholder is the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owes about $3.4 billion in back taxes for the year 2000. Russian authorities said they were simply cracking down on financial misdeeds; many Russians see the case against Yukos as retaliation for Khodorkovsky's dabbling in politics. He faces separate charges of fraud and tax evasion.
The government had indicated that it plans to sell Yuganskneftegaz, a production unit that pumps about 1 billion barrels of oil a day, to meet the tax bill. The Justice Ministry's court bailiff service seized Yuganskneftegaz and hired a Western bank to determine its value in anticipation of selling it to cover the tax bill.
Yukos, however, using excess cash from its production units, has paid $2 billion of the tax debt since July and has said it will send in the rest by the end of this month, Shadrin said.
These rapid pay-downs undermined the government's intent to sell off Yuganskneftegaz, which accounts for 60 percent of Yukos's production capacity, analysts said. The company said Wednesday that the freezing of the accounts prevented it from clearing the last of its debt for unpaid taxes, interest and penalties.
"This is not about the money, this is about the assets," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank in Moscow. "One reading is that the government doesn't want Yukos to pay down the debt as fast as it has been because it jeopardizes its plans to square away its seizure of Yuganskneftegaz."
The account freeze that Yukos disclosed Wednesday grew from a new criminal case brought by prosecutors alleging that an accountant at the Yukos holding company had illegally transferred about $2.6 billion to accounts of Yukos production units. The prosecutors demanded that money be paid to the government, on top of the tax bill.
Company officials denied wrongdoing by the accountant and accused the prosecutor's office of arbitrarily increasing Yukos's debt with the demand. Shadrin noted that there was substantially less than $2.6 billion in the affected accounts.
"It really doesn't matter whether there is three rubles or 100 billion in the accounts, the prosecutor's office now prevents us from meeting our operating expenses and paying our debts," Shadrin said. "If we cannot pay for anything, we will have to stop operating."
Staff reporter Justin Blum contributed to this report from Washington.