Total CEO de Margerie killed in Moscow as jet hits snow plough

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Total CEO de Margerie killed in Moscow as jet hits snow plough
In this image made from video provided by Russian State Television Rossiya, an investigator works at the wreckage of a private jet which collided with a snowplow at Vnukovo airport in Moscow, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The head of French oil giant Total SA and three French crew members were killed at Vnukovo airport when a corporate jet, the French-made Dassault Falcon 50, collided with a snowplow, Russian investigators said Tuesday. (AP Photo) TV OUT
In this image made from video provided by Russian State Television Rossiya, an investigator works at the wreckage of a private jet which collided with a snowplow at Vnukovo airport in Moscow, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The head of French oil giant Total SA and three French crew members were killed at Vnukovo airport when a corporate jet, the French-made Dassault Falcon 50, collided with a snowplow, Russian investigators said Tuesday. (AP Photo) TV OUT
Total's flags are seen at half mast in front of French oil major Total headquarters at La Defence buisness district, west of Paris, on October 21, 2014. The death of Total's chief executive, Christophe de Margerie, in a plane crash on Tuesday has left a void at the top of France's largest company by profits and deprived the global oil industry of one of its most influential figures. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: A sign table reading as 'Vnukovo-3 Business Aviation Center' is seen outside Vnukovo International Airport hours after the plane crash in which the chief executive of the French oil company Total, Christophe de Margerie, died as his business jet collided with a snowplough on October 21, 2014 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Christophe de Margerie, chief executive officer of Total SA, right, speaks with colleagues on the preview day of the Paris Motor Show in Paris, France, on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. The show, also known as Mondial de L'Automobile, runs from Oct. 4 through Oct. 19 and showcases 250 automobile manufacturers from 18 countries. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 23 : FILE - In this June 23, 2014 file photo Total Oil Chairman and CEO Christophe de Margerie arrives at the Elysee palace to attend a dinner in Paris, France.Christophe de Margerie died in an air crash in Moscow, Russia on 21 October 2014. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Christophe de Margerie, chief executive officer of Totale SA, left, greets fellow attendees as he arrives for the global business leaders summit at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, May 23, 2014. De Margerie, the Total chief executive officer who oversaw the biggest increase in reserves at the French oil explorer in at least 15 years, died in a Moscow plane crash on Oct. 20, Interfax reported. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CEO of French oil group Total Christophe de Margerie attends a session at the Freedom and Solidarity Forum in Caen on June 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 5: CEO of Total Christophe de Margerie arrives at the State Dinner honoring Japanese Prime Minister at Elysee Palace on May 5, 2014 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
French group Total CEO Christophe de Margerie arrives for a state dinner at the Elysee presidential palace with Chinese President on March 26, 2014. France and China signed some 50 deals worth 18 billion euros ($25 billion) during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, French leader Francois Hollande said on March 26. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
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(Reuters) - The chief executive of French oil major Total, Christophe de Margerie, was killed when his private jet collided with a snow plough as it was taking off from Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Monday night.

De Margerie's death leaves a void at the top of one of the world's biggest listed oil firms at a difficult time for the industry as oil prices fall and state-backed competitors keep them out of some of the best oil exploration territory.

The collision occurred minutes before midnight Moscow time as de Margerie's Dassault Falcon jet was taking off for Paris.

Russia's Investigative Committee said the driver of the snow plough had been drunk and that a criminal investigation had been launched. The plane's three crew also died, said Total. The airport said visibility was 350 meters (1,150 feet) at the time of the crash.

Vnukovo is Moscow's oldest and third biggest airport. Located southwest of the capital, it is used by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other government officials.

De Margerie, 63, had attended a Russian government meeting on foreign investment in Gorki near Moscow on Monday.

With his distinctive bushy mustache and outspoken manner, he was one of the most recognizable of the world's top oil executives. Total is France's second-biggest listed company, with a market value of 102 billion euros.

"France is losing an extraordinary business leader who turned Total into a world giant," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in a statement. "France is losing a great industry captain and a patriot."

De Margerie was also a personal friend of French President Francois Hollande, who said he was "stunned and saddened" by the news. Accolades poured in from other French business leaders.

POTENTIAL SUCCESSORS

De Margerie became Total's CEO in 2007, taking on the additional role of chairman in May 2010, after previously running its exploration and production division.

He said in July that he should be judged on the new projects launched on his watch, including such as a string of African fields.

He also said then that Total would seek a successor from within the company. The company had not officially announced any succession plan, but said it would hold a board meeting as soon as possible.

Philippe Boisseau, head of Total's new energy division, and Patrick Pouyanne, who was charged with reducing exposure to unprofitable European refining sectors, have long been seen as potential successors.

Total's shares dipped as much as 2.3 percent on opening, but by 0740 GMT were barely changed at 42.88 euros. It was, however, still the weakest share price performance among the top European oil companies in early trading.

De Margerie was a staunch defender of Russia and its energy policies, as the conflict in Ukraine has raised tensions with the West to levels not seen since the Cold War, and triggered economic sanctions against Moscow.

He told Reuters in July that Europe should stop thinking about cutting its dependence on Russian gas and focus instead on making those deliveries safer.

He said tensions between the West and Russia were pushing Moscow closer to China, as illustrated by a $400 billion deal to supply Beijing with gas that was clinched in May.

"Are we going to build a new Berlin Wall?" he said. "Russia is a partner and we shouldn't waste time protecting ourselves from a neighbor ... 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."

Total is one of the top foreign investors in Russia and also one of the oil majors most exposed to Russia, where its output is due to double by 2020.

Putin sent condolences, praising de Margerie's business skills and his commitment to "the cause of promoting bilateral Russian-French relations".

YAMAL PROJECT

Total said last month that sanctions would not stop it working on the Yamal project, a $27 billion joint venture to tap vast natural gas reserves in northwest Siberia that aims to double Russia's stake in the fast-growing market for liquefied natural gas. De Margerie said then that Europe could not live without Russian gas, adding there was no reason to do so.

Total is the fourth largest Western oil company by market value, behind Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron. Russia accounted for about 9 percent of Total's oil and gas output in 2013.

Total forecast in April that Russia would become its biggest source of oil and gas by 2020 due to its partnership with Russian energy company Novatek and the Yamal project.

Like other big oil companies, Total has been under pressure from shareholders to cut costs and raise dividends as rising costs and weaker oil prices squeeze profitability.

It last month said it would step up asset sales and overhaul exploration after cutting its oil output targets.

Total, which has struggled with production outages in Libya, Kazakhstan and Nigeria, launched a "high-risk, high-reward" drilling strategy two years ago. But the high investment has not yielded any large discoveries.

Russia's air safety record is patchy at best.

In December 2012, a Russian airliner flying without passengers broke into pieces after it slid off the runway upon landing and crashed onto a highway outside Vnukovo Airport, killing four of the eight crew.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov, James Regan, Dominique Vidalon andAndrew Callus in Paris and Florance Tan in Singapore; Writing by Howard Goller and Dean Yates; Editing by Gary Crosse, Toni Reinhold, Robert Birsel and Kevin Liffey)

Total Needs to Fill Void After CEO Death

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