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Christophe de Margerie, CEO of the French oil and gas company Total SA, in a February 13, 2013 file picture. Mr. de Margerie was killed in an airplane accident at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Russia's Tass news agency said on October 21, 2014.PHILIPPE WOJAZER/Reuters

Total SA CEO Christophe de Margerie was like no other Big Oil executive, a fat cat swashbuckler who cut a striking figure in the industry stuffed with rather bland technocrats.

He was plump and sported a walrus mustache, hence his nickname – Big Mustache – in France. He loved a good drink and made no apologies for his lavish pay. In his quest for oil, he went into risky regions where other oil companies feared to tread, bets that did not always pay off.

But what really set him apart from the pack was his belief in "peak oil," the theory that oil production would soon reach the point where it would plateau, then fall, no matter how many fortunes were thrown into exploration and development. That's one of the reasons why he was so keen on the Alberta oil sands. With conventional oil fields in decline everywhere, the oil sands held the potential for long-life reserves.

"He was round and unathletic appearing, but sharp," says Jim Buckee, the former CEO of Calgary's Talisman Energy and current chairman of North Sea oil player EnQuest, who knew him. "Like all senior Total people, he was knowledgeable and did his homework. The reason I liked him most was that he was a peak-oiler and made the case in Total press releases."

Mr. de Margerie was killed early Tuesday morning when the landing gear of his business jet, on takeoff, hit a snow removal machine at Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Three of the plane's crew members were also killed. The driver of the snowplow, who was seriously injured, was drunk, according to Russian investigators.

His death triggered a crisis within Total, one of Europe's biggest companies, with a market value of €105-billion. Total announced it would hold an emergency board meeting as soon as possible to discuss a leadership plan. There may be none in place; certainly, there is no obvious successor, though Total is far more likely to recruit an executive from Mr. de Margerie's inner circle than launch a worldwide search. De Margerie was 63 and showed no signs of wanting to retire.

In May, Total shareholders (among them, indirectly, Montreal's Desmarais family) had approved a resolution to increase the retirement age to 67 from 65, potentially allowing him to stay on the job until 2018. Indeed, the whirlwind deal maker had a lot to do. He has been CEO since 2007 and had spent almost his entire career at the French oil champion, which began life in 1924 as part of a strategic national plan to create an energy company that could keep France rolling in the event of another war with Germany.

Mr. de Margerie was a noted bon vivant who was prone to wine-soaked dinners and relished his status. In 2009, when rage about excessive executive pay filled the newspapers, he used a radio interview to argue that there was no point cutting his pay to satisfy his critics. "Even if I were to cut mine in half, it would still be too big," he said.

He was famous for being late, always. He reportedly once arrived almost two hours late for a meeting with Qatar's oil minister and promptly fell to his knees to apologize.

Backed by the French state (which is no longer a shareholder), Total grew by picking its targets with a deft mix of geopolitics and geology, adding refineries, tanker fleets and developments in far-flung and often politically unstable parts of the world, including Colombia, Angola, Yemen and Argentina. The company went from big to enormous in 1999, when it bought Belgium's Petrofina, and became one of the world's six supermajors a year later, when it merged with French rival Elf Aquitaine.

Total dipped into the Alberta oil sands in 2003, when it bought into Conoco's Surmont project. In 2008, it paid $541-million (U.S.) for Synenco, which has 60 per cent of the one-billion-barrel Northern Lights project. Total took another big step into the oil sands in 2010, when it bought UTS Energy for $1.5-billion (Canadian).

More recently, Total, under Mr. de Margerie, dived into Russia through a joint venture with Russia's Lukoil to explore for shale oil in Siberia. Earlier this year, that project became an early casualty of Western sanctions against Russia, the result of Ukraine crisis and Russia's seizure of Crimea. In spite of the sanctions, Mr. de Margerie supported Western investments in Russia, none more than his own. He argued that finding energy sources in an energy-hungry world should not be derailed due to sporadic political crises.

His relentless quest for oil reserves also took Total to the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan, for another unhappy experience. One of the biggest fields outside of the Middle East, the project has suffered billions of dollars of cost overruns and is many years late.

But no effort was as controversial as Mr. de Margerie's effort to convince the world that peak oil was a clear and present danger. He and his senior executives argued that global production would top out at 95-million barrels a day by 2020, then plateau for some time before going into decline. The theory was, and remains, unpopular with other big oil companies. BP and Exxon Mobile certainly do not buy into theory. "We believe that, because of plateau oil, the oil sands are necessary to supply demand growth," Yves-Louis Darricarrère, a member of Total's executive committee, told The Globe and Mail in a 2009 interview.

While Mr. de Margerie's forecast for oil production topping out in 2020 may be thrown off by surging shale oil production in the United States, there is no doubt that the big oil finds are becoming rarer and that the top conventional fields, such as the North Sea, are in relentless decline. The oil industry may be producing vast quantities of oil – too much at the moment – but it is still finding a lot less every year than it pumps out of the ground. Mr. de Margerie's forecast could yet prove true.

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