The chief executive of the French oil company Total, Christophe de Margerie, was killed when a private jet collided with a snow plough at Moscow’s Vnukovo international airport on Monday night.
“Tonight a plane crashed when it collided with a snow-clearing machine,” said airport spokeswoman Elena Krylova. “Three crew members and a passenger died. I can confirm that the passenger was Total’s head De Margerie.”
The oil company said in a statement: “Total confirms with deep regret and great sadness that chairman and CEO Christophe de Margerie died just after 10pm (Paris time) on October 20 in a private plane crash at Vnukovo airport in Moscow, following a collision with a snow removal machine.”
The collision occurred just before midnight as the Dassault Falcon business jet attempted to take off bound for Paris.
De Margerie, 63, was on a list of attendees at a Russian government meeting on foreign investment in Gorki, near Moscow, on Monday. Hours before his death he had met the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, at his country residence outside Moscow to discuss foreign investment in Russia, the Vedomosti business daily reported.
The Vnukovo airport said in a statement that the Falcon Dassault business aviation jet crashed as it prepared to take off for Paris with one passenger and three crew on board. “During run-up at 11.57pm there was a collision with the airport’s snow plough. As a result of the crash the passenger and all the crew members died.”
The airport said that visibility was at 350 metres at the time of the accident. Moscow saw its first snowfall of the winter on Monday. A fire broke out after the crash and was extinguished by airport firefighters.
Moscow transport investigators said they had opened a criminal probe into breaches of aviation safety rules causing multiple deaths through negligence. French authorities would be invited to take part. The plane’s black boxes had been removed for examination.
The airport was closed temporarily to clear up the scene of the accident but resumed normal operations at 1.30am.
With his distinctive bushy moustache and outspoken manner he was one of the most recognisable figures among the world’s top oil executives.
De Margerie, a graduate of the Ecole Superieure de Commerce in Paris, became chief executive officer of Total in February 2007, taking on the additional role of chairman in May 2010, after previously running its exploration and production division.
De Margerie said in July that he should be judged based on new projects launched under his watch, such as a string of African fields, and that Total would seek a successor from within the company rather than an outsider. Philippe Boisseau, head of Total’s new energy division, and Patrick Pouyanne, who was tasked with reducing the group’s exposure to unprofitable European refining sectors, have long been seen as potential heirs.
A staunch defender of Russia and its energy policies amid the conflict in Ukraine, De Margerie told Reuters in a July interview 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 $400bn 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 neighbour … 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 major oil companies most exposed to Russia, where its output will double to represent more than a tenth of its global portfolio by 2020.
Total is one of the top foreign investors in Russia but its future there grew cloudy after the 17 July downing of a Malaysian passenger airliner over Ukrainian territory held by pro-Russian rebels. The disaster worsened the oil-rich country’s relations with the west and raised the threat of deeper sanctions.
Total said in September that sanctions would not stop it working on the Yamal project, a $27bn joint venture investment to tap vast natural gas reserves in north-west 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 that there was no reason to do so.
Total is the fourth largest by market value of the western world’s top oil companies behind Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron. Russia accounted for about 9% of Total’s oil and gas output in 2013.
The oil company had forecast in April that Russia would become its biggest source of oil and gas by 2020 due to its partnership with the Russian energy company Novatek and the Yamal project.
Total SA is France’s second-biggest listed company with a market value of €102bn.
Like other big oil companies Total has been under pressure from shareholders to cut costs and raise dividends as rising costs in the industry and weaker oil prices squeeze profitability.
De Margerie was the son of diplomats and business leaders, and the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of Taittinger champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.
“His death is a big loss for the global oil/gas industry,” said Gordon Kwan, head of Asia-Pacific oil and gas research at the financial company Nomura.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report