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Russia's Weakened Hand Pays Off For Beijing In Major Gas Deal
Gazprom's CEO Alexei Miller announced on a Russian news show last weekend that Russia and China were "one digit" away from finalizing the agreement. "There is just one question - it's ... a starting, base price in the price formula which, it's remarkable, has already been fully agreed upon with our Chinese partners," he said on May 17. "It's a very little more - to put in only one digit, and a 30-year contract to supply 38 bcm of gas from East Siberia to China will be signed," said Miller.
38 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas is equivalent to one-quarter of China's current gas consumption. The contract begins in 2018 and runs through 2048.
To get the gas into China, Russia plans on building a $23 billion pipeline that will span the length of Russia, just north of the Chinese border. It will connect with China at four points – one near where the borders of China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia meet, and three more connections much further east, including one at Vladivostok.
The negotiations have taken so long mostly because neither side wanted to give in on price. China was looking for similar or better pricing than what Russia gives to Europe, which would be between $10 and $11 per thousand cubic foot (mcf). For years, Russia held out for a higher price, but the crisis in Ukraine has weakened Russia's hand. Gazprom gets about 80 percent of its revenue from selling gas to Europe, and with Russia's relationship with its western neighbors deteriorating quickly, Russia needs other markets. That has it looking east.
China has gained even greater leverage over the years from working with Turkmenistan on natural gas supplies. China already receives about half of its natural gas imports from Turkmenistan – 20 bcm – and the two sides agreed last year to triple the volume to 65 bcm by 2020.
So while Russia was waiting for China to cave, the Middle Kingdom was finding alternative suppliers.
Moreover, not only is Russia feeling exposed by its dependence on a European market that could shrink in the coming years, but it is also in a race against the clock to meet rising Asian gas demand. That's because a lot of liquefied natural gas capacity is set to come online in over the next three to five years; both Australia and the U.S. have ambitious plans to send LNG to Japan, South Korea and China. Russia is in a much better position geographically to meet that demand, but it would need to accelerate building pipeline capacity and liquefaction terminals before Australian and American companies beat them to the punch.
All this is to say that China has capitalized on Russia's vulnerability, and before the last "i" is eventually dotted on the gas contract, Beijing might have what it wants.
If that happens, it would be a major concession by Russia. As Steve LeVine notes over at Quartz, the $10-$11/mcf price Russia may agree to would be below the $12/mcf that Gazprom needs to merely break even.
For the deal to go through, China might have to pay a large amount upfront instead of over 30 years. Investors continue to pull billions of dollars out of the Russian economy in the response to the crisis in Ukraine, so Moscow could use Beijing's money.
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Ukraine : The Most Profitable Gas in the World
There is only one certainty in Ukraine: The energy sector must and will be transformed, and how long this takes will depend on who ends up in the driver's seat and how serious they are about becoming a part of Europe and reducing dependence on Russia. But by then, investors will have missed the boat.
The driving factor for any energy investor in Ukraine is the pricing environment. There is nowhere else in Europe—or some would even argue in the world—where you are going to get significant access to resources and potential resources for the price. Gas is selling at $13.66/Mcf, while it costs $4-$5 to produce and operate. That means producers are netting anywhere between $8 and $9/Mcf.
Whether it likes it or not, kicking and screaming, Ukraine will have to transform its energy sector, if it hopes to see promised IMF money. Kiev will have to start selling off assets and making the industry much more transparent. Greater transparency coupled with an already-favorable gas price environment, will make Ukraine one of the best places to be over the next 5-7 years.
While everyone is now closely watching the campaigns unfold in the run-up to 25 May presidential elections, in the end who wins the presidency—and even the energy ministry—will determine not if, but how fast the country moves to transform its energy sector.
The crucial next step is a psychological one: Ukraine's new leaders must come to the realization that their energy assets, particularly the pipeline system, are not strategic assets, rather they are valuable commercial assets. Privatizing these assets could raise $50 billion.
Right now, the pipeline system is nothing but a conduit for Russian gas into Europe. It could be much more. The pipeline system, and the state-run company that manages it, should be turned into a transparent public company in London, for instance. The sale of 50% of the company could generate sizable profits—half of which could be used to pay down debt to Russia, while the other half could be invested in modernization, turning a potentially valuable assets into a commercially realistic one.
Without the right people in place in the new government, we could perhaps lose a year in getting the necessary reforms in place. And continued talk about the “strategic” nature of these assets could cause investors to lose faith in Ukraine's seriousness about reducing its dependence on Russia. Eventually, it will happen, and what elections will tell us simply is how long it will take.
There are a lot of resources to be developed in Ukraine, and there are also quite a few companies who have assets they cannot development, primarily due to lack of funding or marginal management teams. These companies will now be seeking to transact with larger players.
Historically, the most significant red flag for new investors in Ukraine has been working with the government. It's too early to determine whether that will change. Bureaucracy generally kills deals more than anything, and foreign companies coming in will never be able to understand how the bureaucracy works. The smart investor will employ capital through a Ukrainian private entity to maximize investment dollars. Western management teams, without help from local partners, won't be able to operate in this venue even if they are top-notch managers.
The smart investor will also realize that there is no better time to invest in Ukraine's energy sector. Once it is transformed, the best opportunities will have been seized.
By Robert Bensh of Oilprice.com