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Gazprom is under growing pressure to defend its market share in Europe and win new contracts in China, as sweeping change in global gas markets batters its position.

The Russian gas export monopoly was able to recover sales in the first quarter of this year after a disastrous 2009, which saw sales to Europe, its main market, and other countries fall 13 per cent, with the biggest drop coming in the first half of the year.

Net income fell 19 per cent last year as a result, pushing the company’s free cash flow into negative territory. Alexei Miller, the Gazprom chief executive, recently said sales to some European states were up 40 per cent so far this year compared with the same period last year. “This is a serious boost to our plans to exceed pre-crisis levels of gas production by 2013 and create new export routes,” he said.

But despite Mr Miller’s upbeat tone, analysts say the pressure is far from over with lower demand expected in summer. Gazprom is heading into one of its most difficult periods yet as uncertainty grows over levels of demand in Europe due to an influx of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Middle East, and as doubt increases over economic recovery in the eurozone.

The uncertainty is coming even as the state-controlled group must ratchet up spending on capital intensive new fields and carry through pledges to build major new pipelines into Europe: North Stream and South Stream. “The heady days of 2007 when Miller was predicting $200 oil and a trillion dollar capitalisation for Gazprom – these are long gone,” says one gas industry executive in Moscow. “As the new reality seeps in the question is what is next for Gazprom.”

“Gazprom has got to solve the price problems in Europe,” says Jonathan Stern, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, referring to the difference between prices in its oil price-linked long-term contracts and the cheaper prices on the spot market, where the LNG is sold. “The situation is not easing. We are going into summer when demand will go down. For the next 2 to 3 years it is going to be very very difficult for anyone trying to sell into Europe on oil linked prices.”

Gazprom has already been forced to react to the changing conditions in global gas markets, for the first time renegotiating its long-term oil price-linked contracts with European energy groups to allow for up to 15 per cent of sales to be linked to gas prices on the spot market.

It also said it was delaying development of the offshore Arctic Shtokman field by three years to launch production in 2016 after the surge in development in shale gas in the US dampened hopes for Gazprom exports there.

Gazprom had hoped to win up to 10 per cent of the US market, mainly sourcing supplies from the Shtokman field where it plans to develop LNG. But now these plans have turned out to be “wishful thinking”, according to Valery Nesterov, energy analyst at Troika Dialog.

The changes so far to its long term export contracts, however, might not be enough to maintain market share in Europe, Mr Stern says, as other producers such as those in Norway – which have offered more flexible terms for sales – continue to increase sales compared with Gazprom.

“They think they have solved it. But the way I see supply and demand they will still have problems,” he says. The gas group is indeed still in talks with its European energy partners on possible further changes to contract terms to make them more flexible. “This is a normal process,” says one person close to the group.

Part of the problem for Gazprom is that in previous years, it had been used as a tool to help achieve Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions, industry executives say.

As president, Mr Putin had overseen a period of empire-building by Gazprom that saw it lock in supplies at market prices from Central Asian producers to head off potential competition from the European Union, while also attempting to increase its hold over European markets – where it has traditionally supplied about 25 per cent of the continent’s imports – via the building of North Stream and South Stream pipelines.

Not all of these costly politically driven projects, however, appear to have had a strong economic foundation.

One of the biggest examples was a deal last year in which Gazprom agreed to buy back a 20 per cent stake in its oil arm, Gazpromneft, from Eni, the Italian oil major for more than $4bn, well above its market price, even as its revenues were falling and even though Gazprom already controlled the company.

The latest and most compelling example, analysts say, was Mr Putin’s recent proposal Gazprom merge with its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz Ukrainy. Analysts said the proposal, which Ukraine has yet to agree to, was a blatant power play that would give Russia control over the “commanding heights” of the Ukrainian economy, but would significantly add to Gazprom’s already debt-burdened balance sheet.

Gazprom’s position is not to be envied. It must weigh having to boost investment in complex, logistically challenging new fields in the Yamal Peninsula against uncertainty in global markets.

It must continue investing because its production at existing fields is already in decline with the company itself forecasting output will drop from a maximum capacity of 600bn cu m to 400bn cu m by 2020. “There is always a concern about a turndown in demand,” said one person close to the gas group. “But it is the same people that two years ago said give us more gas who are now saying we don’t need any. In today’s situation no one can predict anything,” the person said, pointing out that other industry executives in the West are still warning of a supply gap in 20 years.

Against this backdrop, Gazprom’s negotiations with China on a big new supply deal are becoming increasingly important, as markets are expected to grow at a much faster pace there than in Europe.

Igor Sechin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for energy, recently said he expected a sales agreement to be reached by September this year. But talks on price have been going on for years. And “even if there is deal, it is going to be at least five years before gas flows to China,” Mr Stern says. “It is not going to solve the problems.”

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