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Argentina plots next moves in bid to control energy company

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentine President Cristina Fernandez met privately with key members of her government Thursday night to plot next moves in a campaign to wrest control of the South American country’s leading energy company, YPF, from its majority owner, Spain’s Repsol.

Spain’s government warned earlier in the day that any “hostile gestures” against Spanish companies abroad would be seen in Madrid as an act of aggression.

Fernandez said later in a national address, without referring directly to the Repsol-YPF dispute, that she was “ready to pay all the prices that must be paid” to continue supporting her model of growth in Argentina.

YPF is Argentina’s largest company and vital for its energy future, but Fernandez’s government has accused its parent, Repsol-YPF SA, of paying too much of its profits in dividends and not investing enough in exploration and production. The company has resisted the pressure, recently approving a plan to recapitalize its gains rather than invest in a separate Argentine energy development fund.

Just how Argentina may try to displace Repsol, which owns 57 percent of YPF, has been the subject of wide speculation since the government’s pressure campaign began in February. In recent weeks, governors of oil-producing provinces have withdrawn a growing number of its oil and gas leases, alleging the company failed to keep its promises to develop them.

Repsol-YPF President Antonio Brufau met earlier Thursday with Argentine Planning Minister Julio de Vido, presenting a detailed plan to expand its investments in Argentina after all, but de Vido rejected it as insufficient, according to a report by the local Diarios y Noticias news agency.

The agency also said it had obtained a draft copy of a law to be proposed by the Fernandez government that would declare 50.1 percent of the company’s shares to be “a public good” subject to government expropriation and control.

YPF spokesman Sergio Resumil told The Associated Press that he wasn’t aware of what transpired during the meeting between Brufau and de Vido. Neither side made any public statement about it or the reported plan to expropriate a controlling number of the company’s shares.

Argentine Cabinet chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina said last month that “if the only way forward is to nationalize YPF, it will be nationalized.”

De Vido met Thursday evening with the 10 governors of Argentina’s oil-producing provinces, who have a considerable degree of power over mineral resources. Then the oil group met with Fernandez herself.

Speculation about the possibility of a re-nationalization of the formerly state-owned company drove YPF stock up sharply. YPF shares trading in Buenos Aires closed up 7.4 percent at 123 pesos, and YPF closed up 8.6 percent at $22.93 in New York.

Meanwhile, shares of the parent Repsol YPF SA company fell again in Madrid, down nearly 1 percent at $17.96 a share. Overall, the company’s shares have lost 20 percent of their value since the Argentine pressure campaign began.

YPF represents 42 percent of Repsol’s total reserves, estimated at 2.1 billion barrels of crude, and each lease revoked by an Argentine province has threatened to take more away from Repsol’s reserves.

Spain’s government offered a blunt warning in support of Repsol YPF earlier in the day.

“If anywhere in the world there are hostile gestures against the interests of Spanish companies, the government will regard them as hostility against Spain,” Spanish Industry Minister Jose Manuel Soria said. “If there are any hostile gestures, they will bring consequences,” he added, without elaborating.

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Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed to this story.

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