The collapse of the OPEC+ deal, coupled with a drop in demand amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, has sent tectonic shocks across the global oil and gas markets. Simultaneously, attacks on the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project have intensified again.
The global demand for oil had started to decline well before negotiations on the possibility of OPEC+ extension got under way in Vienna at the beginning of March. The decline was due to the pandemic and warm winter. In the course of Vienna talks Riyadh issued an ”ultimatum-like demand” for a dramatic reduction in oil production, which was unacceptable for a whole number of supplier countries because of the risk of losing their share of the market. Meanwhile, accusations on the part of Saudi and western politicians and mass media who blame Moscow for initiating the OPEC+ failure are groundless. Cartel agreements naturally lose their attractiveness over time, since «every participant tends to cheat on others». Another substantial flaw of the OPEC+ is that there are no oil companies from the United States among its signatories. As a result, the reduction in oil production on the part of OPEC+ countries has increased the market share of American producers.
In response to the OPEC+ fiasco, Saudi Arabia (KSA) announced its intention to “inundate the market” by boosting the output by 25%. Riyadh launched a price war in the hope of “regaining the lost share of the market”. KSA cut the oil prices it offered for April by 5-8 dollars per barrel in an attempt to exert pressure on Russia and “on other producers, which are not members of OPEC, including the United States». A number of Gulf countries have also announced an increase in production. As a result, by the end of March, oil prices had reached an 18-year low, the Russian Urals hitting less than 15 dollars per barrel. Should the price war escalate, the Urals price may drop to 5-8 dollars.
Observers present different comments as to Riyadh’s reasons for doing so. From purely tactical considerations – «to force Moscow to return to the negotiating table», to long-term ones, oriented at re-carving the entire oil and gas market, including destabilization of the oil industry of competitor countries, first of all, Russia and the United States. It could even be an attempt to undermine the social and political stability in economies which are dependent on oil and gas exports.
The Saudis’ major advantages comprise, first of all, the lowest production cost, huge oil reserves, substantial, over 0.5 trillion dollar state reserves, and unlimited opportunities for foreign loans. At the same time, experts say, «the Saudi economy is bogged down in debt». If it wants to maintain deficit-free budget, Riyadh ought to keep prices at no less than 80 dollars per barrel. According to IMF experts, even a return to «the rate of 50-55 dollars per barrel» will not be enough for KSA.
By 2024, Saudi Arabia may face a balance of payments crisis and could choose not to tie the rial to the dollar . Meanwhile, on March 27, The Wall-Street Journal reported mass consumer refusals in Europe and North America to accept new shipments of Saudi oil, as “there is nowhere to store more of it.”
The dramatic decline in oil prices has seriously hit the US oil business, as fears of mass bankruptcies in the American shale oil production sector build up. Regular suppliers are preparing to significantly reduce investments and supplies.
The “shale boom” made it possible for America to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2018 and become the world’s largest oil producer. Unlike earlier, when cheap oil always played into the hands of the American economy, now the situation has changed radically. In the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, the money saved by gasoline consumers is unlikely to whip up demand in other sectors of the economy. What will sustain damage as well is the shale oil sector on which a number of US states depend. The breakeven threshold for shale oil companies, according to The Economist, varies from $ 23 to $ 75 per barrel, depending on the oil basin. The price collapse is fraught with mass layoffs – right in the year of the presidential election.
Meanwhile, shale oil producers have experienced mounting difficulties even before the start of the current price war. Many companies have been reporting only losses in balance sheets of late. Investors have turned away from the shale sector, most companies found it almost impossible to draw new loans or refinance the old ones. Now, given the dramatically developing situation in the oil market, many shale producers may see being taken over by larger players as the “best” option.
The collapse of oil prices has dealt an equally devastating blow to the geopolitical plans of the US leadership. As dependence on oil imports decreased, Washington became ever more confident that the United States would now be able, through sanctions, to completely halt oil exports from Venezuela and Iran, without fearing uncontrolled global destabilization. A number of experts in Russia express concerns that the growth of production and export capacities in LNG and shale oil sectors, according to the standard scheme now, could prompt Washington to “tighten sanctions” against the Russian oil and gas industry.
In the summer of 2017, President Trump announced plans to secure a US dominant position in the global gas market. An energy strategy that saw light at that time as well “describes Russia as a competitor,” claiming that “Russian projects to diversify supply routes to Europe run counter to the US policy.” Resulting from such political approaches is “concerted effort … against Nord Stream-2 (NS-2)” and other Russian projects on the construction of new gas pipelines to Europe.
At the end of 2017, the United States, for the first time in 60 years, began to export more gas than it imported. The growth of shale production enabled the United States to produce 733 billion cubic meters by the end of 2017 – more than anywhere in the world, including Russia. However, until recently, one of the major obstacles to expanding US gas exports was the US dependence on oil imports. Oil in the US domestic market is several times more expensive than gas in energy equivalent. If the US is to increase the supply of its “cheap” gas – to compensate for the shortage of oil and gas in the domestic market – it would have to increase the import of “expensive” oil.
Another deterrent is competition from Russia. American LNG is more expensive than Russian pipeline gas. As a result, in 2017, gas supplies from the USA to Europe amounted to no more than 3 billion cubic meters of gas. Meanwhile, gas consumption in Europe last year reached 500 billion cubic meters. In an attempt to reverse the trend, in the same 2017, the US Congress voted in favor of a package of sanctions that put under “threat the construction of any new gas pipeline” in Europe with the participation of Russia. In general, it was supposed to launch sanctioned weapons against Moscow by the time the LNG production in the USA reaches full capacity – by 2020-2022. On December 21, 2019, when the United States imposed sanctions against companies engaged in laying NS-2, foreign project contractors suspended all operations.
It cannot be ruled out that if and when the EU sees American LNG as a good alternative to Russian gas, Brussels may choose to swap restrictions on gas supplies from Russia to Europe. The political will to “pay extra for energy security” is also present in a number of European countries. Another scenario could feature a US attempt to force a price war on Moscow, to guarantee dumping in the European direction. In this case, Nord Stream-2 will fall not only under political, but also under direct financial pressure. But it’s hard to imagine how the US authorities are going to convince their power engineers to supply Europe at a loss?
Meanwhile, the long-term strategy of the United States, according to a number of Russian analysts, may not boil down to the struggle for the gas market, but for its transformation by analogy with the oil market. If it were possible to block the maximum number of existing and under construction pipelines, the lion’s share of gas in the world would go by sea in the form of LNG. This would help “untie” gas prices from oil and transform the international gas market into a single, global and spot one where transactions are quick and are made in US dollars to minimize costs and risks. Thus, the main goal of the hype around the “shale revolution” and the “seizure of the global gas market” is to keep the global oil and gas market tied to the US dollar.
The price war declared by Saudi Arabia may put an end to such plans. That the situation in the United States has reached a critical point becomes clear on the basis of recent statements from Washington. According to US media reports, on March 26, the US Secretary of State called on Saudi Arabia to “stop the price war with Russia”. Texas shale producers have urged state officials to “consider reducing oil production … due to falling demand”. On March 30, at the initiative of the White House, there was a telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The two parties agreed to hold “Russian-American consultations” “on the current state of the world oil market” “on the level of ministers of energy”. Markets took the news with some hope of concluding a comprehensive agreement on the regulation of oil production between Moscow, Washington and Riyadh.
Europe, in the event of further blockage of the Nord Stream 2 project, risk falling hostage to Washington’s geopolitical ambitions, what with its statements about the intention to fill the market with its LNG. But this may undermine the economic leadership of Germany, and, accordingly, the policy of strengthening EU unity. Finally, if, after all the current cataclysms, the European Union is still adamant to fight for energy independence, it will have to think how to reduce the share of international commodity trade in dollars. Back in September 2018, the then head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said it was “absurd” for the EU to pay for 80% of its energy imports in dollars, considering that these imports are estimated at 300 billion euros per year. And this is despite the fact that only 2% of Europe’s energy imports come from the United States.
Rumors circulating in the oil market are about the possibility of behind-the-scenes agreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which will be directed against Moscow. At the same time, The Financial Times writes, “Russia’s major oil companies have every chance of surviving a drop in oil prices over the next two years, taking into account the advantages that they have over foreign competitors.” For example, Russian oil companies will remain profitable even at a barrel price of $ 15.
Significantly, the ability of the Russian fuel and energy complex to effectively resist price fluctuations is largely the result of Western sanctions. For example, “a large part of the costs and debts” of Russian oil companies is denominated in rubles. At the same time, the ruble exchange rate is free, “floating,” while the currencies of the KSA and the UAE are tightly tied to the dollar. The decline in the ruble leads to an increase in export revenues. The Russian tax system flexibly responds to falling oil prices. Finally, “the country’s oil companies have built up large foreign exchange reserves in recent years”.
Russia’s positions in the European gas market remain strong as well. Despite the year-on-year increase in political and sanction pressure, as well as the decline in contract prices, Russia accounts for a third of the European market. The Russian leadership, as well as Gazprom, have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to completing the Nord Stream 2. The energy strategy of Russia until 2035 provides for the progressive development of new projects in the LNG sector, where world trade is expected to increase to 70% by 2040.
Thus, the current state of the global oil and gas market is determined by three key factors: the price war, the coronavirus pandemic and, as a result, an excess of oil supply. In addition, the situation in the world economy may break the sad “records” of the 2008-2009 crisis. According to the estimates of the Xinhua News Agency, the whole world is “in survival mode.” In such circumstances, each of the supplier countries faces a dilemma: to fight for a greater market share in the hope of beating the competitors, or try to coordinate efforts to stabilize prices. It seems that the struggle for exhaustion is the last thing the world community needs now. For this reason, Moscow calls for dialogue and a return to constructive cooperation, which hinges on a thorough analysis of the long-term consequences of decisions made.
From our partner International Affairs
Nord Stream 2: To Gain or to Refrain? Why Germany Refuses to Bend under Sanctions Pressure
The chances of the sanctions war around Nord Stream 2 to rage on after the construction of the pipeline is finally over seem to be high. That said, we have to admit, with regret or with joy, that it will be completed, and for the following reasons:
Germany, like any other European country, has set itself the task of abandoning coal and nuclear energy within the next few decades. In reality, however, there is no alternative to coal and nuclear energy. Simultaneously forsaking gasoline and diesel cars, which is something Europe dreams about, will inevitably increase the EU’s demand for electricity. However, green energy is unlikely to satisfy Europe’s energy needs any time soon. Hopes for cheap thermonuclear energy are unlikely to come true until 2050 at best. Therefore, in the coming decades, natural gas, Russian and other, will obviously remain the most convenient and cheapest fuel. At the same time, regardless of where the pipelines run, Russian natural gas will account for a significant share of the European and world markets. This is not politics – just a simple economic reality.
Despite the attributed environmental benefits of Nord Stream 2 and the Russian natural gas, the positive impact of replacing coal with natural gas remains largely unclear as it depends on the volume of methane leaking from the processes of gas extraction and transportation. Nonetheless, Nord Stream 2 presents itself as an attractive alternative for the EU as it would help decrease gas prices because Russia will be able to supply the EU with higher amounts of gas, thus, decreasing demand for expensive imported liquified natural gas (LNG).
Nord Stream 2, although a privately-financed commercial project, has political implications. Politics and economics are too closely intertwined, and in the short term at that. The abandonment of Nord Stream 2 will hardly weaken Russia and force the Kremlin to introduce democratic reforms. This will only result in Europe losing a good opportunity to effectively ensure its energy independence, as well as that of its Baltic and Eastern European allies, many of whom, unable to fully integrate themselves into European energy systems, continue to buy electricity from Russia.
At the same time, Nord Stream 2 will help make Germany a guarantor of the EU’s energy security. More and more people now feel that the sanctions against the Russian-German project are essentially meant to undermine Germany’s growing influence. However, even this abnormally cold winter has shown that political problems and competition for influence in the EU are taking a back seat to energy security issues. The disruption in LNG supplies from the United States has only underscored Europe’s need for the Nord Stream. Besides, when completed and controlled by Germany, Nord Stream 2 could be used as a means of pressure against Russia and Russian supplies which is exactly what Brussels and Washington want.
Yet, the United States continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 project and, thus, trans-Atlantic tensions between Germany and the United States are on the rise. Like the Obama and Trump Administrations which opposed Nord Stream 2 and introduced tangible steps to halt its progress, the Biden Administration is too faced with a lot of pressure by American lobbyists and members of the Congress in order to push back and halt Nord Stream 2 progress and efforts. However, until this very day, US President Biden and his administration did not sanction the project, which could be understood in lights of Biden’s struggling efforts to repair relations with Germany after the Trump Administration’s accusations towards and troop withdrawals from Germany. Thus, although the current administration under Biden still opposes Nord Stream 2, it is reluctant to impose any sanctions because its priorities lie with repairing US-German ties in the Post-Trump era.
The United States is not the only opposing International player to Nord Stream 2, but even many Eastern European countries, including Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland are against the pipeline project in fear of geo-economic insecurity. For instance, it is believed that Nord Stream 2 would cost Ukraine approximately $2 to $3 billion in losses as the transit volumes shift from Ukraine to Nord Stream 2. Another argument put forth by European opposition to Nord Stream 2 is that it would undermine the EU’s energy solidarity or even a potential “Energy Union”; however, Germany and supporters of Nord Stream 2 often highlight that the imported Russian gas would not only benefit Germany, but rather all of Europe. The pipeline is expected upon completion to be able to transport 55 billion cubic meters of Russian Natural Gas to Germany and other clients in Europe!
Despite oppositions, threats of sanctioning and the earlier construction halt in December 2019, it seems that the Gazprom-Pipeline Nord Stream 2 will be completed and will go online soon as the Biden Administration continues to refrain from imposing sanctions.
How Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, crude oil and natural gas have been playing a key role in the geopolitics of the Caspian region. Hydrocarbon revenues became an important source of economic growth for the Caspian Basin countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Shortly after gaining independence in the early 1990s, the Caspian states implemented energy policies that protect their national interests. According to the BP 2020Statistical Review of World Energy total proved energy reserves of the Caspian states are: Kazakhstan has30.00 billion barrels of oil and 2.7 trillion cubic meters of gas, Azerbaijan 7.00billion barrels of oil and 2.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, and Turkmenistan 0.6billion barrels of oil and 19.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Such rich hydrocodone reserves allowed the Caspian states to contribute significantly to the global energy markets. Today, the Caspian states are supplying oil and natural gas to various energy markets, and they are interested in increasing export volume and diversification of export routes. In comparison with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which supply energy sources mainly to China and Russia, Azerbaijan established a backbone to export energy sources to Europe and Transatlantic space. As the Caspian Sea is landlocked, and its hydrocarbon resources located at a great distance from the world’s major energy consumers, building up energy infrastructure was very important to export oil and gas.
To this end, Azerbaijan created the milestone for delivery of the first Caspian oil and natural gas by implementing mega energy projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).Now, one can say that both energy projects resulted from successful energy policy implemented by Azerbaijan. Despite the COVID-19 recession, the supply of the Azerbaijani oil to the world energy markets continued. In general, the BTC pipeline carries mainly Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) crude oil and Shah Deniz condensate from Azerbaijan. Also, other volumes of crude oil and condensate continue to be transported via BTC, including volumes from Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. As it is clear, the BTC pipeline linked directly the Caspian oil resources to the Western energy markets. The BTC pipeline exported over 27.8 million tons of crude oil loaded on 278 tankers at Ceyhan terminal in 2020. The European and the Asian countries became the major buyers of the Azerbaijani oil, and Italy (26.2%) and China (14%) became two major oil importers from Azerbaijan.
The successful completion of the SGC also strengthened Azerbaijani position in the Caspian region. The first Caspian natural gas to the European energy markets has been already supplied via Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in December 2020, which is the European segment of the SGC. According to TAP AG consortium,a total of one billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas from Azerbaijan has now entered Europe via the Greek interconnection point of Kipoi, where TAP connects to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The TAP project contributes significantly to diversification of supply sources and routes in Europe.
Another historical event that affected the Caspian region was the rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The MoU on joint exploration of “Dostluk/Friendship” (previously called Kapaz in Azerbaijani and Sardar in Turkmen) offshore field between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan was an important event that will cause positive changes in the energy map of the Caspian Sea.
The Assembly of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan Parliament have already approved the agreed Memorandumon joint exploration, development, and deployment of hydrocarbon resources at the “Dostluq” field. It should be noted that for the first time two Caspian states agreed to cooperate in the energy sector, which opens a window for the future Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. Such cooperation and the future transit of Turkmen oil and gas via the existing energy infrastructure of Azerbaijan will be a milestone for trans-regional cooperation.
The supply of the Caspian and Central Asian natural gas to European energy markets was always attractive. Therefore, the TCP is a strategic energy project for the US and EU. After the signing of the Caspian Convention, the EU officials resumed talks with Turkmenistan regarding the TCP. The May 2019 visit of the Turkmen delegation headed by the Advisor of the President of Turkmenistan on oil and gas issues was aimed at holding technical consultations between Turkmenistan and the EU. Turkmen delegation met with the representatives of the General Directorate on Energy of the European Commission and with the representatives of “British Petroleum,” “Shell” and “Total” companies. TCP is a project which supports diversification of gas sources and routes for the EU, and the gas pipeline to the EU from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey, known as the combination of “Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline” (TCP), “South-Caucasus Pipeline Future Expansion” (SCPFX) became the “Project of Common Interest” for the EU.
Conclusively, Azerbaijan is a key energy player in the region. Mega energy projects of the country play an important role to deliver Caspian oil and gas to global energy markets. However, the Second Karabakh War has revealed the importance of peace and security in the region. The BTC pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor linking directly the Caspian energy to Western energy markets were under Armenian constant threat. As noted by Hikmat Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, “Armenia fired cluster rocket to BTC pipeline in Yevlak region”. Fortunately, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan protected its strategic infrastructure, and there was no energy disruption. But attacks on critical energy infrastructure revealed that instability in the region would cause damages to the interests of many states.
In the end, Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea by completing mega energy projects, as well as creating the milestone for energy cooperation in the Caspian region. After Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, the country supports full regional economic integration by opening all transport and communication links. Now, the importance of the Caspian region became much more important, and Azerbaijan supports the idea of the exportation of natural gas from Turkmenistan and the Mediterranean via SGC. Such cooperation will further increase the geostrategic importance of the SGC, as well as Azerbaijan’s role as a transit country.
The Silk Road of Gas: Energy Business from Central Asia to Europe
Central Asia possesses a significant role within the global geopolitical balance since it comprises numerous trade channels that link many businesses with millions of target customers from China to Portugal and vice-versa. Withal, by having abundant hydrocarbon potentials, the region offers tremendous opportunities to the global and local players.
Throughout the recent period, the preponderance of the energy-based plans and policies triggered the emergence of mega projects in the region, such as the Southern Gas Corridor, Central Asia–China gas pipeline, TAPI, and a possible Trans-Caspian pipeline in the upcoming years. Albeit these intense investment activities are foreshadowing new regional perspectives for economic development, it also generates additional alternatives and realities for the European policymakers.
The new business in the traditional routes
Anciently, the region was home to the legendary Silk Road, which was shaping the vivid economic landscape of the planet. Today, the region’s erstwhile role in trade seems to be revitalized to some extent by the projects such as the Road and Belt Initiative. In contradistinction to the past, energy forms the backbone of modern trade in Central Asia despite some cardinal difficulties of marketing and transportation.
In the last decade, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan had some attempts to increase their presence in the sector via their involvement in Central Asia–China gas pipeline. Notwithstanding, none of them was able to establish a comprehensive framework of cooperation with the EU as Azerbaijan. Through its unique Southern Gas Corridor project, which enables the transfer of the natural gas from the Shah Deniz field of the Caspian Sea to South Europe, Azerbaijan had radically transformed the pipeline mappings at the Caspian region. Concomitantly this channel provides a tremendous chance to the other landlocked Central Asian countries to be able to meet the rising demand in the European market.
From the European Union perspective, energy can be categorized as a strategic sector since the European economy increasingly relies on international suppliers. Currently, 54% of the energy consumption within the EU is imported mainly from Russia. More specifically, in 2019, Russian stake in the EU’s natural gas import was 44%, and the dependency of EU countries on Russian gas in 2013 as follows: Estonia 100%, Finland 100%, Latvia 100%, Lithuania 100%, Slovakia 100%, Bulgaria 97%, Hungary 83%, Slovenia 72%, Greece 66%, Czech Republic 63%, Austria 62%, Poland 57%, and Germany 46%. These substantial factors are forming the backdrop of the EU’s diversification policy in the concerning field through the establishment of intense diplomatic and economic ties to ensure the sustainability of energy security.
During the anticipated turbulent periods, especially considering the latest exacerbation between Russia and the Western bloc over the Ukraine dispute, the European economy might inevitably face some severe hurdles. Since there is a possibility that the process might be accompanied by the risk of the blockage of the Russian gas by the transit countries.
The viable solution
Geopolitical escalations undoubtedly hasten the energy diversification process within the European Union. Therefore, the essence of the energy policy of the EU can be categorized as a combination of liberal and realist approaches. Although the union intends to achieve its economic goals via the market mechanisms, it also adopts a realist standpoint in International Relations, specifically in the energy context.
As stated by the British Petroleum data published in 2019, proved gas reserves of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan totaled26,2 trillion cubic meters or 13,1% of the world’s known reserve. Undoubtedly, such an enormous potential would significantly contribute to the energy security of the EU.
Given the current situation in the European energy market and the global political climate, the EU cannot ignore its energy security concept, which is the fundamental aim of energy policy. In this sense, Southern Gas Corridor appears like the most convenient alternative by considering the future possibility of the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline that would dramatically facilitate the direct transfer of the Central Asian gas to South Europe.
As long as the EU is dependent on the imports of fossil fuels, the necessity of the balance in the energy sector will remain topical. Hence the formulation of a rational approach towards cooperation with potential suppliers, particularly key countries such as Azerbaijan, is essential. Otherwise, the energy notion will remain a risky and problematic political and economic instrument.
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