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Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian

Vanand Meliksetian is an energy and utilities consultant who has worked with several major international energy companies. He has an LL.M. from VU Amsterdam University…

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Moscow May Use ‘Nuclear Option’ In European Gas Race

The competition for a stake in the European gas market is heating up in 2019, which promises to be an important year. The outcome of this contest will have a long-lasting effect. Two interconnected but separate developments are having a substantial impact on Europe’s energy imports. On the one hand,  the shale revolution in the U.S. is producing massive amounts of natural gas, which is supercooled as LNG and shipped overseas. On the other hand, Europe's long-time supplier, Gazprom is working on additional pipeline infrastructure such as Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream to secure its market share in the wake of increased competition.

The American natural gas industry developed itself into a significant exporter and has increased the stakes for Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Russian officials, for a long period, were in denial of the negative consequences as a result of American LNG exports. However, Sergei Komlev, the head of contract structuring & price formation for Gazprom Export, recently acknowledged the new situation in Gazprom’s magazine: “it is obvious that LNG will be the main rival in the battle for the European consumer”. Therefore, the construction of both pipelines is of paramount importance for the Russian energy giant. 

The missing gas problem

Despite increased competition, Gazprom is still doing good business in Europe. The energy giant managed to export 202 bcm in 2018 and doubled its profit despite efforts to reduce dependency on Russia.

Analysts expect Europe’s dependence on imported natural gas to increase even further due to the depletion of domestic gas fields. Until 2025 a ‘gap’ of approximately 100 bcm will arise which needs to be imported from abroad. There are two options to fulfil the extra demand based on existing or ‘under construction’ infrastructure: LNG or additional supplies from Russia.

(Click to enlarge)

According to most analysts, Gazprom’s motivation to construct Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream is more political than economic due to Moscow’s desire to circumvent Ukraine and punish her for its pro-European stance. However, the fact remains that Gazprom is still mostly dependent on Ukraine’s infrastructure for the majority of its gas sales to European customers. It is in Kiev’s interest to maintain its status as a transit country which provides her significant strategic value and generates $3 billion in annual transit fees for the state’s coffers. Related: New Middle East Proxy War Could Jolt Oil Prices


Source: S&P Global Platts

Moscow’s European gas strategy

Gazprom has a gas transit contract with Ukraine’s Naftogaz until January 1st 2020. To put maximum pressure on Kiev, Moscow intends to complete both Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream before the end of 2019. Depriving Ukraine of its strategic value and income from transit fees would seriously erode its bargaining position vis-à-vis Gazprom for the import of Russian gas and most likely plunge the country into a recession.

However, Denmark delayed the approval to use its EEZ for Nord Stream 2, which is a setback that could postpone the pipeline’s completion. Interfax news agency quoted Nord Stream AG, the company responsible for construction activities, that the project is suffering delays and will go into production in 2020 instead of the end of 2019.

Gazprom could be preparing for what some analysts call the ‘nuclear option’ which will seriously damage Russia’s position as Europe’s most important energy supplier. The intention, however, is to put maximum pressure on Ukraine and remove it permanently from the gas delivery business. To achieve its goal, Gazprom has been filling storages across Europe, including the leasing of additional locations. This way, the energy giant would be able to meet its minimum contractual deliveries to European customers while bypassing Ukraine’s pipeline system.

A difficult decision ahead

The cancellation of deliveries through Naftogaz’ infrastructure would dramatically increase gas prices on the continent due to scarcity and most likely push Ukraine into a recession. In such a situation Kiev would also be unable to buy gas from its European neighbours through reverse flows leading to a disastrous first year in office for Ukraine’s new president Zelensky. Moscow would be betting on the besieged Zelensky to cave in and adhere to the Kremlin’s demands.

Despite the possibility, it remains highly unlikely for Russia to choose this option because it would also significantly damage its reputation as a reliable supplier.

By Vanand Meliksetian for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on May 22 2019 said:
    Let start with the facts. Fact one is that Russia’s position in the EU gas market is unassailable with almost 40% market share and growing. Moreover, Russia’s share will be enhanced further to 45%-50% in the next decade with the completion of both the Nord Stream 2 and the Turk Stream which will bring Russian gas supplies under the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea respectively to the EU when completed by the end of this year. Russian gas supplies to the EU are projected to continue rising at a time when the EU demand for gas and LNG is growing by leaps and bounds whilst European gas production is projected to decline significantly particularly with the planned shutdown of the Groningen gas field in the Netherlands by 2030.

    Fact two is that both the Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream will be completed on time. Denmark delaying tactics will not delay the completion of Nord Stream 2 since the company building it could bypass Danish waters easily.

    Fact 3 is that Nord Stream 2 is first and foremost a viable economic project which will ensure security of Russian gas supplies to the EU without interruption and also without interference by Ukraine. By constructing Nord Stream and Turk Stream, Gazprom was overwhelmingly motivated by consolidating its dominance in the EU highly profitable gas market well into the future. If the motivation was political, then it would have been far cheaper to reach an accommodation with Ukraine than spending many billions of dollars on constructing these two pipelines. Still, President Putin assured President Trump at their meeting in Helsinki a year ago that Russia will continue to transport part of its gas supplies to the EU through Ukraine’s gas pipeline system provided legal matters between the two countries have been settled by then.

    Fact 4 is that while the EU will import US LNG as part of its energy diversification strategy, US LNG supplies will hardly make a dent on Russia’s market share and dominance in the EU gas market for the foreseeable future because US LNG prices can never compete with the price of Russian piped gas now or for the foreseeable future. Still, significant volumes of LNG from the United States, Qatar and Russia will still be needed in the fast-growing EU gas market.

    Moreover, the escalating trade war between The US and China could adversely affect US LNG projects. Without both Chinese funds and guaranteed Chinese LNG demand, some of the US LNG projects could stall.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Steven Conn on May 22 2019 said:
    Russian LNG exports have risen rapidly in 2018 and 2019 from Yamal. Some Russian gas has actually been sold in northeast USA during cold winter months. It is incorrect to claim that Gazprom officials "were in denial". They repeatedly said that their gas has the price advantage on its side compared to US LNG. This is in fact so and explains why Washington applies non-market pressure on EU and Germany to push its own gas.

    Gazprom's desire to continue its decade long policy of reducing gas transport through Ukraine has an obvious economic factor - reduce transport fees and avoid a very expensive and sometimes unstable route. To claim that it is entirely political is to neglect the money issue.

    Continual loss of gas transit will not necessarily cause a recession in Ukraine because its industry has already collapsed by 25% during 2014-2018; industrial indices data is available on their finance and economics ministry.

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