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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Russia’s Grip On European Gas Markets Is Tightening

Despite years of effort from the EU, Russia’s grip over natural gas supplies in Europe is tightening, not waning.

Gazprom shipped 190 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe in 2017—a record high, according to Bloomberg. In 2018, that figure is expected to dip slightly to 180 billion cubic meters, which will still be the second most on record.

The higher reliance on Russian gas may come as a surprise, not least because of the ongoing tension between Russia and some European countries on a variety of issues. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to a standoff between Russia and the West—but Europe’s imports of Russian gas are up more than 25 percent since then, despite a lot of rhetoric in Brussels about diversification.

There has been some progress. U.S. LNG has begun arriving on European shores for the first time, promising to compete with Russian gas. Importing LNG has been a lifeline particularly in some areas that are acutely exposed to Russia’s gas grip. Lithuania began importing LNG, offering an alternative to Russian gas and forcing price concessions from Gazprom.

For years, U.S. LNG has been billed as somewhat of a game changer, threatening to end Russia’s control of the European market. There have been some notable concessions from Gazprom—more flexible pricing, for example, and an erosion of oil-indexed pricing—but the Russian gas giant has not lost market share. A lot of U.S. LNG has been shipped to Latin America, not Europe.

Related: Oil-Rich Venezuela Is Out Of Gasoline

Part of the reason is that European natural gas production continues to fall, leaving a void that Russia has been eager to fill. At the same time, Gazprom’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer Alexander Medvedev told Bloomberg that coal prices are expected to rise a bit in 2018, making Russian gas more competitive.

Meanwhile, Russia is not leaving the LNG game to the Americans. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently inaugurated the start of the Yamal LNG project in Russia’s Arctic, a massive $27 billion LNG export terminal developed by private Russian gas company Novatek that was completed on time and on budget.

The global LNG market is dominated by Australia and Qatar, while the U.S. will increasingly grab market share as new terminals come online in the next few years. But Yamal LNG puts Russia on the map, and Russia is aiming to control 15 to 20 percent of the global market, according to the FT. “Starting from today, the number of people who have never heard of us will decrease dramatically,” Leonid Mikhelson, CEO of Novatek, said. “Russian gas will be marketable on the global arena.” Russia does export some LNG from Sakhalin in the Far East, but Yamal is positioned to service Europe as well as Asia.

The FT noted that the first shipment of LNG from Yamal was sent to the UK. Related: Are NatGas Prices About To Explode?

Then there is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a proposed project that will double the capacity of the existing line that runs from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The project is vociferously opposed by some Eastern European countries, as well as the United States, but it has the support of Germany. If completed, it will lock in even more market share for Russia.

All of this isn’t necessarily a huge threat to European energy security as long as supplies are secure. The threat of alternatives from other LNG suppliers could keep Gazprom honest. The price concessions offered thus far are evidence that Gazprom will need to remain competitive in order to hold onto market share. At a minimum, the availability of LNG weakens the threat of a cutoff of supply from Russia. And as crude oil prices rise, the practice of linking gas prices to oil will probably continue to weaken.

But overall, Russia remains the dominant supplier of gas to Europe, despite years of promises from European politicians to diversify. Few see that changing anytime soon.

Russia’s share of the European market will rise to 40 percent by 2035, up from 30 percent now, according to an estimate from BP.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on January 01 2018 said:
    Not only Russia’s grip on European gas markets is tightening but it will also continue unabated for the foreseeable future. And once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a proposed gas pipeline that will run from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, is completed possibly by the end of 2019, it will make it virtually impossible for the United States and other major LNG exporters to loosen Russia’s iron grip on the European gas market.

    Before US LNG shipments began arriving in Europe, the United States made it abundantly clear that its LNG exports have economic and geopolitical objectives, mainly ending Russia’s control of the European market.

    However, future US LNG exports will face stiff competition from leading exporters of LNG in the world, namely Qatar, Australia and recently Russia.

    When it comes to attempting to undermine Russia’s pipeline exports to Europe, the United States is at a disadvantage. Natural gas transportation by pipeline is significantly cheaper in most cases than building and employing expensive LNG port infrastructure. In terms of natural gas production and distribution, Russia’s operating costs are low and their export infrastructure is already built.

    Whilst the United States can't threaten Russia’s market share in Europe or eventually Qatar’s or Australia’s in Asia, future US LNG exports will have a positive impact on the US economy and will significantly help hold down energy costs for consumers around the world. They will also improve Europe’s economic and geopolitical leverage when negotiating new gas deals with Russia.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Greg hofmann on January 02 2018 said:
    Exporting and importing liquefied gas is more complicated. Gas is expensive to ship overseas because it must be cooled to minus 260 degrees, condensing it to what is called liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G., to be shipped in giant tankers. The importing country then has to turn the liquid back into gas so it can be transported by pipelines. But even though liquefied gas is usually more expensive than piped gas or even coal, demand and supplies are growing fast.

    “This bulge of L.N.G. is going to completely upset the apple cart of world
  • Douglas Houck on January 02 2018 said:
    "But overall, Russia remains the dominant supplier of gas to Europe, despite years of promises from European politicians to diversify. Few see that changing anytime soon.

    Russia’s share of the European market will rise to 40 percent by 2035, up from 30 percent now, according to an estimate from BP."

    There's an old saying in economics, "Money talks".

    Russia will remain the dominant supplier of gas to Europe simply because Russia has shown itself over the long term to be a reliable and cost effective supplier of natural gas. The current Russiophobia is mostly in the US. Ask Germany or Austria how they feel about Nordstream 2?

    With the TurkStream, NordStream 2 and Power of Siberia pipelines coming on-line in the next couple of years, Russia will continue to be a major supplier of natural gas to both Europe and China.

    What's interesting is the potential to bring piped natural gas to Japan and South Korea. Japan is a mere 45 km (The Sakhalin–Hokkaido connection) away from having a natural gas pipeline from Russia. It seems to be a question not of if, but when. Piped natural gas to South Korea would most likely require going through North Korea (not viable at this point in time) or shipping LNG down the coast from Vladivostok. Nobody has a shorter transit route.

    The US with it's higher cost LNG will have to lean on it's allies to sell much of it at a price premium.
  • Sergei on January 08 2018 said:
    Douglas, another way to export Russian gas to South Korea that is being discussed at the moment is to build an undersea pipeline along the eastern coast of Korean Peninsula (but outside the North Korean EEZ) — a "Korean Stream" of sorts. Of course, Russia would prefer to build a land pipeline through North Korea, but it's impossible because of the sanctions policy against NK.

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