What if Europe stopped buying Russian gas tomorrow?

With plenty of natural gas in storage, and new options for buying it from other sources, Europe could go without Russian gas for the rest of the year, Grealy writes. Brussels might even benefit from going on the energy offensive by cutting off a dominant source of Russia's revenue. 

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters/File
The company logo of Russian natural gas producer Gazprom is seen on an advertisement installed on the roof of a building in St. Petersburg. European gas import dependency is matched by Russian export dependency, Grealy writes.

It’s only March, but it now seems clear that for service to the industry, the winner of European Shale Gas Man of the Year will go to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

It’s hard to know who is more surprised: Putin, the EU or Russian investors. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Putin forgot EU gas import dependency is matched by Russian export dependency. 

Gazprom has the pipeline export monopoly and only opened up LNG exports to include Novatek in 2013. Within Russia there are many oil and gas producers, but Gazprom, as direct descendant of USSR Ministry of Gas Industry, and still 38% owned by the Russian Federation, has the monopoly of exports. This from Oxford Institute of Energy Studies from a couple of weeks ago is as up to date as one can get:  

Sberbank estimates that Gazprom generated $162 billion of total revenues in 2013,34 meaning that gas exports to Europe as a whole accounted for 39% of this and exports through Ukraine for around 20%. Gazprom’s overall reliance on gas exports has been reduced over the past decade as the company has diversified into oil (via GazpromNeft), power generation and other related businesses. Nevertheless, the company would clearly be hit very hard by any interruption to its European exports.

It’s ironic that the OIES was until recently thought of as being too conservative and too eager to highlight the major role Russian gas played in European energy to the exclusion of LNG and shale gas. But their point today is that one could almost say that the last thing anyone want’s to do is what Russia, and Gazprom, has just done: revealing yourself as unreliable and expensive makes customers seek alternatives:

This from James Surowiecki in the New Yorker 

If Gazprom were seen as a reliable supplier, rather than as a tool of the Russian government, it wouldn’t be so vulnerable to competition. Of course, former K.G.B. agents aren’t known for their respect for market forces, and Putin cares far more about using Russian power than about Gazprom’s profits. But he’s about to find out that, when you’re running an authoritarian petrostate, energy profits are power: Russia depends on oil and gas revenue to fund its imperial ambitions and maintain stability at home. Alienating customers and giving competitors an opening isn’t just bad business. It’s bad politics. Putin likes to think of himself as a geopolitical grandmaster. But when it comes to natural gas he isn’t thinking enough moves ahead.

Putin certainly chose the wrong winter, but I guess he couldn't have spoilt the Sochi Games. Unlike the 30 year record low winter in the US, it has been very mild in Europe and as a result, Europe’s gas storage is already 45% full at time where it normally would be empty. It would be easy enough to reach 100% with Norwegian, Algerian or LNG supplies alone over the lower use summer season. People forget that the simplified reason behind storage is that gas flows out of holes in the ground at the same pressure in January or July. Therefore it has to go somewhere and gas storage is the answer. Russia could actually stop selling gas to Europe and no one would be any the wiser, or colder, until next winter. Russia would immediately notice the difference in the bank, which is why they don't want to interrupt supply.

That presents an interesting possibility that is making the rounds in Brussels, Washington and NATO circles. One has to understand that after the 2006/09 Russia/Ukraine disputes, other things have changed, quite apart from shale and LNG. Europe’s total gas demand is 10% below the peak as Europe burns more coal, renewables displace small, but noticeable, gas volumes and the economy has soured.The EU has also got Norway as even more reliable supplier eating more and more into what Russia considered a captive market. LNG of course has been already been disrupted by the evaporation of US demand, increasing the pool of suppliers. LNG is complex but essentially, if Europe was going to pay the price, which is still likely to be less than Russian gas is (or was), there’s plenty of gas sloshing around. In short, “Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia.”  Those words were spoken by David Cameron of all people in Brussels but the point was made explicit by US State Department Special Envoy for Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual:

Russian gas giant Gazprom may lose the European energy market, since Europe can buy 160 billion cubic meters of gas from alternative sources – the exact amount it purchased from Gazprom in 2013, according to Carlos Pasqual, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (2000-2003) and the State Department’s Special Envoy for Energy Affairs.

Energy analysts believe the European Union’s initiative on reducing reliance on Gazprom is serious.

Paqual, speaking during a press conference at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center on March 21, estimated that over the next several years “at least 80-90 billion cubic meters of gas could enter the European market through new sources from Australia, Mozambique, Algeria, and other countries, while the U.S. government recently approved six new drilling licenses that could add yet another 80 billion.”

The last refers to the US LNG export story, a favourite of Republican Senators back home even as it ignores the fact that permitting exports and achieving them via terminals are two different things.

Back to Brussels, and moving away from energy, initial fears that Europe, and specifically Germany and the UK ,would be too eager to give in to Russian blackmail have been proven wrong. Merkel seems to have given up on diplomacy, stating Putin is out of it.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.

The reality, which both Putin and many energy “experts” including green enablers like EcoFin didn’t see coming, is that Brussels now thinks if push came to shove, they could do without Russian gas. Not only that, there is a new toughness in Europe that surprises themselves as much as anyone. Expect to hear a strange sound we thought we would never hear again: European sabre rattling. While no one is shooting, expect to see, if Putin wants it, various troop movements into the Baltics and Poland to match the Russian “exercises” near eastern Ukraine. Obama was heading to Brussels this week anyway to visit the EU. Significantly, he’s now going across town to NATO HQ as well.

But at the same time, there may be a more useful form of pre-emptive strike: A European gas buyers strike. Why wait for Russia to have the upper hand over supply in the event of a serious winter in 2014/15? Storage can only go up to 100% and that’s easy to reach in spring and summer from non-Russian sources. But cutting off the cash now will have a more immediate impact on Russia. US and European financial sanctions are already starting to hurt.   

Europe can comfortably do without Russian gas for the rest of the year. In fact, we may even save money compared to Russian prices and save the cash for any possible LNG spikes this winter. Could Russia do without European money so easily? Let's cut them off first when they are more vulnerable instead of giving them billions to put us over a gas pipe next year.  

In the big game in Putin’s mind, he can simply switch to China. But that’s as fanciful a notion as those LNG Liberty Tankers unloading on the beach. Russia and China have been talking gas deals for years, agreeing on everything apart from that little matter of price. But, in a yet another own goal for FC Kremlin, China will get an even better gas price now they realise they have VV Putin in a judo hold.

"With Western sanctions, the atmosphere could change quickly in favor of China”

Going back to shale, the Brussels meeting is reconvening in June with some concrete plans to change the energy mix. Russia has shown itself to be unreliable and expensive. That’s not a good combination in any business and Europeans will now rush to get gas from various sources including, starting at the end of 2015, US LNG. The US LNG is only available thanks to shale and if they aren’t yet saying much on shale in public, even Merkel and Hollande understand the contradiction that buying US shale while banning our own is irrational.

It's going to be interesting to see the Green reaction here. We may get the chance, albeit unwillingly for most, to see one of their pet theories in practice: Radical demand reduction. We certainly shall see proof that a rapid rise in renewables is as fanciful as instant LNG. Unfortunately, we may also see what it is allegedly being considered in the UK: The suspension of the large coal fired power station closures planned for next year.

If the UK government hadn't been shaken by the combination of green complaints and inconsequential earthquakes, to preclude Cuadrilla's shale gas plans, the UK at least would be facing the possibility of domestic shale gas supplies coming on line this winter, instead of 2016/17. Even after the multi year obsession and enabling of the "risk" industry, we missed one of the greatest gambles of all: supply won't even show up.

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