BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Romania said yesterday that nine out of 10 international oil companies interested in its SNP Petrom had filed non-binding bids ahead of today’s deadline. The sale of Petrom, estimated to fetch about $1.0 billion, is scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2004, and is a crucial element in the ex-communist Balkan country’s accords with international lenders. It is seen as a litmus test of Romania’s willingness to let go of strategic assets. «We’ve got nine offers from international companies with which we will start due diligence,» Economy Minister Dan Popescu told a news conference. «We haven’t so far got any request (from companies) to form a consortium. But from what I know, the (short-listed) firms have held preliminary talks on this issue,» he added. The government, which owns around 93 percent of Petrom, plans to sell 33.34 percent to an investor who would at the same time buy newly issued shares to raise its stake to 51 percent. «Consortia will be formed before the companies submit binding bids,» Tamas Pletser, Erste Bank oil analyst, said. «It’s a large-scale investment, even for big companies.» Companies who expressed interest include US firms Occidental Oil and Gas and Conoco Philips, Italy’s ENI, Austria’s OMV, Hungary’s MOL and Poland’s PKN Orlen. Also short-listed are US firm Alon Inc, Russia’s Gazprom, Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum and Switzerland’s Glencore. Russia’s TNK-BP withdrew from the race earlier this month. «Eventually, I think there will be two or three groups of companies to hold final negotiations with us,» Popescu said. Higher interest So far, OMV has said it submitted a non-binding offer, while highly placed officials at Hellenic Petroleum confirmed that the company plans to submit a bid. A MOL official did not rule out joining forces with PKN later to bid for Czech Unipetrol chemical group and for Petrom. The two companies signed a letter of intent yesterday to create Central Europe’s top fuel group. Analysts said interest in Petrom, which offers access to the Black Sea and could become a springboard for transporting Middle East crude to Europe, is likely to remain high, but some companies were expected to drop out toward the end. «We will see when binding bids are submitted who are the companies who take the issue seriously,» Pletser said. The deadline for binding bids is January 31, 2004. Petrom, which has a work force of over 60,000, has both upstream facilities – drilling 6.0 million tons of crude and 6.1 billion cubic meters of gas per year – and downstream facilities – two refineries and 600 filling stations. Analysts had said high oil prices might have lured US companies, which have only a modest presence in Central and Eastern Europe, to Petrom’s upstream facilities, while European companies vie to consolidate the region’s fragmented oil sector. Pletser said Russia’s Gazprom, which announced it would bid for two gas distributors that Romania plans to sell by March next year, is interested in Petrom’s gas production unit and might decide to reduce its exposure to Romania. Petrom’s nine-month profits fell to 1.2 trillion lei ($35.63 million) in the first nine months of this year from 1.48 trillion in the same 2002 period. Seven percent of Petrom’s 37.7-trillion-lei share capital trades on the Bucharest bourse. Its shares closed 0.68 percent higher, at 1,470 lei yesterday.