Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Russia, Ukraine and the annual gas game

There is a developing tradition at the end of the year, in which Russia gets into a spat with Ukraine about the payment of the Ukrainian gas bill. Gas supplies are curtailed to Ukraine, which immediately passes on the cuts to the Western European nations on the other end of the pipeline, and there is a short-term, very public row, at the end of which gas supplies are re-started and the situation gets pushed under the rug for another year.

In trying to develop a longer term solution to the problem, Gazprom (the Russian gas company) and its partners have been developing two pipelines, one around the North, and one following a Southern route, to bring natural gas to Western Europe without going through Ukraine. Austria was asked to join the southern branch (South Stream) today. At the same time the West has been trying to line up enough gas supplies to run its own pipeline from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan into Europe without going through Russia; the pipeline is called Nabucco.

None of these pipelines is yet in place, and so, as the winter season starts to arrive one would naturally begin to worry that the traditional drama would play out again this year. Thus Gazprom has hastened to proclaim, in an interview with Bloomberg that this year will be different. Ukraine is paying its bills each month, and as long as that continues then gas will continue to flow. Although, at the same time, there have been the usual heavy hints that if bills aren’t paid then taps will again close. And Ukraine is hinting that to meet those bills it will need money from the International Money Fund. However it is also seeking a loan from Europe. And the latest comments from Ukraine suggest that this years bargaining round is only just starting. The reassurances that Ukraine is providing, while superficially calming, also retain the caveat that could warn of future problems.
"Ukraine is ready to comply with its obligations on gas transit through its territory within the next half a year at least," he (Ukrainian presidential envoy for international energy security Bohdan Sokolovsky) said at a press conference in Kyiv on Nov. 9. . . . . Having 27 billion cubic meters of gas and repaired gas transportation system, Ukraine can guarantee the transit of the Russian gas provided it comes to Ukraine's GTS (Gas Transportation Services)," he said.
It’s that little catch phrase at the end that always seems to generate trouble.

UPDATE: Coincidentally Jerome has written an article that explains in much greater detail the background to this situation and yet comes to somewhat the same conclusion I draw. His article is well worth the read in understanding why, however.

And unfortunately it has been trouble in the pipelines supplying gas either to or from Russia that has caused earlier problems around the Russian perimeter, and there seems to be no indication that this year will be any different.

Unfortunately the situation is not that cut and dried. I have written about the concern that Turkmen gas, normally a significant supplier, through Russia into Ukraine, may not be available this year. Further the drop in prices and demand for Russian gas is giving Gazprom some financial problems, since they have not sold some 8.5 billion cubic meters of gas or so that they had anticipated, on top of the actual 142.5 billion cu m they actually have sold the west this year to date. (In context Gazprom would normally sell about 45 bcm to Europe in the fourth quarter, and that is about the amount of gas that they normally buy from Turkmenistan in a year). Because of the contract sales language Gazprom is thinking of fining its customers for not buying their full allocation.

And as Turkey and Azerbaijan negotiate on getting Azer natural gas for the pipelines through Turkey, the prices for transport that are being negotiated appear similar to those that Russia charges:
According to him,( Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yildiz) Turkey has offered Azerbaijan a fee of $2.36 per 100 km for transporting every 1,000 cubic meters of the South Caucasus republic’s gas.
“The proposed fees are completely competitive. Russia charges $2.6 for transporting the same volume,” the Turkish minister said.

We recall that during the “gas war” between Russia and Ukraine this January, Kyiv sought to raise transit fees for Russian gas giant Gazprom to $3 per 100 km in case prices for Russian gas increased.
The attempts by Ukraine to get that higher fee have not stopped.

Meanwhile Russian companies are coming under pressure to reduce gas flaring since Prime Minister Putin sees this as a loss in revenue. At the moment Russia is flaring about 20 bcm a year (apparently about a third of that which comes out as a byproduct of Russian oil production).

Incidentally, in regard to my earlier post on Saudi Arabian production, Platts ( has noted that it is not only Asia that saw the reduction in Saudi exports, but that the United States also got a reduced allocation, with imports falling to 745 kbd in August. Whether this is a simple monthly aberration or portends something more dramatic, only time will tell.

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