Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Gazprom wants all of Sakhalin : Is the monopoly too big to handle?

The Russian government may now have a very big headache to deal with in its oil and gas sector, its own creation - Gazprom. The more you feed the giant, the greedier it gets. After the Russian monopoly was given sizable stakes in most natural gas projects on Russian soil, in some cases the stakes were taken away from foreign companies, as well as being granted the exclusive right to export Russian natural gas, Gazprom remains unsatisfied.

Earlier this week, Gazprom's deputy head Sergei Ananenkov stated that because Gazprom would not be able to fulfill the natural gas supply requirements to Russia's Far East before 2014 with its new Sakhalin-3 project, it should be given the right to buy the natural gas produced on Sakhalin-1 (co-owned by Exxon Mobil and Rosneft, among others) who are already in talks of exporting that gas to China.

Many see such statements as Gazprom's attempts to wrest control over all the major Sakhalin energy projects. After buying out Royal Dutch Shell's 50% + 1 share stake in Sakhalin-2 late last year amid active pressuring from the Kremlin to revoke Shell's license for the project outright, Gazrpom with the help of the Russian government's several ministries is seeking to attain control over the Sakhalin-3 project without a formal auctioning process. And now, Gazprom has been complaining about the violation of its unique natural gas exporting right status while the companies controlling Sakhalin-1 plan to export gas to China.

Kommersant cites experts saying Gazprom's statements of a deficit of energy resources in Russia's Far East are only a pretext. Gazprom's real goal is to negotiate export prices to China out of Sakahlin-1 itself (and presumably decide on further allocations of natural gas) rather than let the consortium members do it. Right now exporting natural gas is a much more lucrative business than selling it within Russia, due to a large disparity in prices and government subsidies.

As Vremya Novostey reports, Gazprom's actions are already seeing criticism from the Russian government. Russian minister of Natural Resources Yuri Trutnev has communicated his discontent with the transfer of Sakhalin-3 to Gazprom without a formal bidding process, calling it a procedure not in compliance with Russia's regulations. Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin called out Gazprom's aggressive actions aimed at preventing its competitors to have any ability to export gas by blocking possible pipeline construction projects.

Yet another interesting development arises in Gazprom's recent statement. Not only is it attempting to affirm its power over foreign-based energy giants doing business in Russia, now it is also battling another Russian state-owned giant Rosneft, a large stakeholder in Sakhalin-1 and a contender for Sakhalin-3. The Russian governmental ministries now find themselves in a delicate position in the middle of a corporate dispute; some as Alexei Kudrin, have already picked sides.

Many have warned the Russian government of ballooning the size of Gazprom to a point when it would be both hard to control and harder to manage. The former is already a fact. Will Gazprom be able to deny the latter is a matter of time. Upon assuming control of Russia's key natural gas-producing projects Gazprom will have to show that it can work as effectively as its foreign colleagues, who have been moved to the sidelines with the help of the Russian government.

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