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Boardroom coup shakes UK shale player Dart Energy

By Andrew Callus

LONDON (Reuters) - Shareholders in UK shale developer Dart Energy backed a boardoom coup this week, voting out the chairman and his allies despite his warning that the move was an attempt to acquire the company on the cheap.

New Hope Coal, leader of the coup, cited years of poor performance.

The move comes amid intense investor scrutiny of Britain's shale oil and gas drilling scene. Britain is seen as a European test bed for the controversial extraction practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The ousting of chairman Nicholas Davies and his allies also comes while Australian-listed Dart, one of a handful of bets on a successful UK shale industry, aims to close a cooperation deal with GDF-Suez under which the French utility would provide cash and funding.

GDF Suez plans to pay Dart Energy $12 million in cash upfront and fund $27 million in exploration and appraisal costs in exchange for a 25 percent share of 13 UK onshore licenses in the Bowland shale across northwest and central England.

The transaction, announced in October, is expected to be completed by year-end.

A statement announcing Davies' resignation and his replacement by Robert Neale, the managing director of 16 percent shareholder New Hope Coal, made no reference to the future of the GDF deal.

However, a Nov 19 letter from Davies to shareholders urging them to reject the coup on Nov 19 warned: "It should come as no surprise to you if I told you that the international oil and gas majors who we are negotiating with in the UK were bewildered by New Hope's tactics."

A letter from New Hope on the same day outlined how Dart's market value had shrunk over the past three years. "Without change at the board level of Dart Energy, New Hope fears that the history of poor financial performance will continue," it said.

Dart's chief executive, John McGoldrick, did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the aims of the new board or the future of the GDF deal.

Dart is one of three significant projects betting that, with help from government incentives, they will produce commercial amounts of oil and gas from Britain's shales and that fierce local and environmental opposition to fracking will not derail their plans.

The second group is IGas Energy , 21 percent owned by Canadian group Nexen, which has been part of China's CNOOC since earlier this year.

The third is Cuadrilla, a privately owned business backed by a fund that is partly owned by former BP CEO John Browne, in partnership with British utility Centrica .

(editing by Jane Baird)

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