MILAN, April 14 (Reuters) - Claudio Descalzi faces a delicate balancing act as he takes the helm of Italian oil major Eni - guaranteeing Italy's gas supply by nurturing relations with Russia, while exploring new drilling frontiers in Africa and Asia to boost profit.
The Italian government's choice of Descalzi, a longtime oil man with more than 30 years experience at the group, gives Eni a leader who is likely to push forward his predecessor Paolo Scaroni's efforts to focus the company on its nuts and bolts business of finding and mining new oil and gas fields.
That could also mean selling down the company's 43 percent stake in Saipem to get the oil service group's debt off its balance sheet and raise more cash to invest.
The bald and burly Descalzi is one of the most respected managers in the so-called E&P, or Exploration and Production, part of the oil business. Royal Dutch Shell recently offered Descalzi a job to become the head of their E&P business, but the Italian government - which owns 30 percent of Eni - persuaded him to stay with the promise of the Italian company's top job, according to people familiar with the matter.
Yet the 59-year-old physics graduate will inevitably have to focus much of his attention on the more geopolitical aspects of the job.
Recent tensions over Russia's seizure of Crimea have revived fears over energy supplies across the European continent. Those concerns loom especially large in Italy, which along with Germany is the biggest customer for Russian gas.
Italy depends on imports to meet 90 percent of the gas it needs to heat its homes and fuel its industry. With no developed nuclear industry, the only alternative to generate power is expensive subsidised renewable energy.
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