Dutch Petroplus has moved into the big league of refiners with its latest and largest purchase yet, and plans to stay hot on the acquisition trail, co-Managing Director Marcel van Poeke told Reuters yesterday.

Petroplus, based in the oil hub of Rotterdam, announced it had bought the 117,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) Teeside refinery in northern England from Phillips Petroleum and ICI for an estimated $110 million.

That nearly doubles its refinery capacity to 250,000 bpd at a stroke. "It makes us a serious player in this market," van Poeke said. The refinery, the second acquired by Petroplus in less than a year, specialises in the production of Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD), the environmentally-friendly fuel mandated for use across Europe by 2005.

Petroplus also operates the 68,000-bpd Cressier refinery in Switzerland, purchased earlier this year from Royal Dutch/Shell, and a 65,000-bpd Antwerp plant. It also owns the mothballed Milford Haven refinery in Britain, but currently only uses storage there.

Petroplus has fashioned itself as Europe's answer to U.S. independent refiners like Tosco <TOS.N>, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock and Valero. It hopes to continue to snap up assets other oil companies are anxious to sell.

"I think there are many more opportunities than people think. We believe there's a huge opportunity," van Poeke said. "We see many more refineries on the block than there were a few years ago."

In particular, van Poeke said Petroplus was eyeing refineries and storage in France, Spain and Italy, although he declined to specify which operations it was targeting. "There's a lot of restructuring going on in southern Europe," he said.

The Teeside purchase price - about $42 million for the refinery and marketing operations and $68 million for product currently in storage there - was less than double the plant's annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation, van Poeke said.

ICI and Phillips were anxious to unload the operations. Phillips, the fifth largest U.S. oil company, has been shifting its focus to exploration and production activities, while ICI has been hiving off assets to shift its portfolio to higher value fine chemicals.

But despite the buyers' market for refineries in Europe, van Poeke said he was not worried that U.S. independents might target the market. Tosco made its first foray into Europe in July with the planned buy of the 75,000 Whitegate refinery in Ireland.

"We think there's more than enough room here," Van Poeke said. Petroplus also wqs considering a move into the extremely competitive British retail petrol market, he said. The company currently operates the Tango chain of unmanned retail outlets in the Netherlands. "There are no concrete plans, but we will be studying it," he said.