When Russia intervened in Ukraine earlier this year, the United Nations condemned President Vladimir Putin’s decision to trample a sovereign state’s autonomy. The United States moved ahead with sanctions. And the European Union tried to put pressure on Putin for cheaper gas.
But the man known as “the Big Mustache” — Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of French oil conglomerate Total and a personal friend of French President Francois Hollande — didn’t have much use for outrage.
“Can we live without Russian gas in Europe?” de Margerie asked Reuters. “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.”
Head of one of the world’s largest petroleum companies, de Margerie was not subtle. He was not shy. Like Charles Barkley, he was not a role model. De Margerie, 63, died in a freak plane crash in Moscow on Monday when his corporate Dassault Falcon jet collided during takeoff with a snowplow reportedly driven by a drunk driver. With his death, a much-maligned industry lost one of its most enthusiastic boosters, leaving “a void at the top” of the industry, as Reuters put it.
“It’s a huge loss to the industry and its future focus,” John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil, told the BBC. “What he has done for Total in repositioning the company to return to integrity and sound operations is deeply respected and highly regarded.”
Unlike some in Big Oil, de Margerie was not a climate-change denier. He talked about the need for energy to be produced cleanly and efficiently. And he wanted the trust of politicians and the public.
But if environmentalists got in the way of his mandate — bringing energy to the people — frack ’em.
“You are responsible of bringing energy to your clients,” he said of his company during a heated exchange with a BBC interviewer last year. “You are responsible of bringing electricity. You are responsible of having people living and not dying. So who is taking the decision of what do we leave in the ground?”
De Margerie’s candid summation was refreshing for anyone who lived through BP’s equivocations after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: “I am not in charge of the planet.”
These eight words came after almost four decades of service. De Margerie went to work for Total in 1974, becoming the company’s point man in the Middle East — “Mr. Middle East,” in fact — and, in 2010, its chairman.
He scoured the world for black gold. He was often late to meetings. And he did not apologize.
“It is nice to be in charge,” de Margerie said in 2011.
Arrested and charged with corruption in 2006 during the United Nations’ oil-for-food scandal, de Margerie maintained his innocence — and was acquitted in 2013.
On trial, he did not shrink from vehemently denying that Total bought oil from Iraq illegally when the country was supposed to be trading the resource for humanitarian aid.
“I have a great memory,” de Margerie said in a Paris court. “I dispute this completely. I’m ready to state it yet again.”
Even as court proceedings unfolded, de Margerie did business with regimes perceived as unsavory in the west, including Uganda and Iran. (In 2013, Total paid the U.S. government almost $400 million to settle charges the company bribed an Iranian official.) He wanted hydraulic fracturing in France, where it is outlawed.
He didn’t want his home country to miss out.
“We have not oil or gas,” he said in 2011. “Where did the U.S. companies find their first oil and gas? And their reserves and their cash? It [was] here [in the U.S.], not in France. This is why the French companies are always looking for partnerships.”
De Margerie’s attitude — more Dirty Harry than Marty McFly — was welcomed by some journalists, who compared him favorably with “awkwardly laconic peers.”
“He tells you straight up that he thinks the world will soon run short of oil,” Forbes wrote in 2011, “and that as long as he’s around Total will make deals with anyone (perhaps even the devil?) to keep the hydrocarbons flowing.”
For Total, this wasn’t just public relations. Bluntness was a business strategy.
And when Russia came under fire for its incursion into Crimea, he compared international action against Putin to building another Berlin Wall.
“Russia is a partner and we shouldn’t waste time protecting ourselves from a neighbor,” he said. “… What we are looking to do is not to be too dependent on any country, no matter which. Not from Russia, which has saved us on numerous occasions.”
For de Margerie, oil wasn’t just something to be sourced and sold. It was part of the fabric of the universe.
“Carbon is not the enemy,” he said at a climate change conference in 2009. “Carbon is life.”