Key decisions about Europe’s gas market have become increasingly driven by politics

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Whether as a result of cooling relations with Russia, security of supply or environmental concerns, key decisions about Europe’s gas market have become increasingly driven by politics, writes Stuart Elliott.

While politics have always played an important role in the energy sector, over the past few years a trend toward a new class of energy- related decision-making seems to have emerged with non-economic or sub-economic policies increasingly in evidence.

European gas in particular is likely to be impacted by more protectionism-driven policies – from the US, the UK, Russia and others – as the application of national security goals in energy policy increases in significance, which in turn is having an impact on gas infrastructure investment, trade flows and prices. The increasing politicization of European gas will inevitably lead to decisions on infrastructure – especially around LNG import facilities and pipelines – that will see shifts in European gas flows and gas price evolution, with infrastructure costs passed on into gas network charges and energy bills.

German LNG ambition

One country currently in the center of the politics-economics dichotomy is Germany. Europe’s biggest gas consumer with demand at around 90 Bcm/year, Germany has found itself in the middle of a political quagmire, with the US and Russia pulling at Berlin on either side and even Qatar making a play to impact 200 Germany’s gas supply. The German government’s support for an LNG import 150 terminal, in particular, is questionable. Germany is possibly the best connected country in Europe in terms of gas supply, with direct links to Norway, Russia, the Netherlands and now southern Europe after Italy completed its reverse flow initiative in September. In addition, it can access LNG imports easily through northwest Europe’s chronically under-utilized facilities – such as Gate in the Netherlands, Zeebrugge in Belgium and France’s northern terminal at Dunkirk.

Germany’s economy minister Peter Altmaier in September went as far as to say that a German LNG import terminal would be a “gesture” to the US, which wants to help Europe wean itself off Russian gas by turning instead to US LNG. This is tantamount to admitting that Germany does not need an LNG import terminal when Europe’s existing plants are used at just one quarter capacity, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics data.

It could be argued that Germany would be better off with its own LNG import facility, giving German companies increased flexibility around renegotiating pipeline gas supply contracts with Russian gas giant Gazprom. And it might mean Germany can say it has a more diversified import mix following criticism from US President Donald Trump that Germany is “captive to Russia.”

Enter Qatar, which said it would be interested in supplying a future German LNG import terminal, perhaps in an attempt to find a foothold in Europe’s most important gas market. Jonathan Stern, leading gas analyst from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, sees limited value in having an LNG import terminal in Germany. “The economic value is dubious,” he said. Germany had decades-old plans for an LNG import facility at Wilhelmshaven, which Stern said was arguably a much more commercially justifiable project at that time than the current scheme. “If it didn’t make economic sense then, I don’t see why a new project should now,” he said.

Poland’s plans to build the Baltic Pipe to import Norwegian gas via Denmark are also “economically crazy,” Stern said, and are solely based on Warsaw’s determination to become independent from Russia. Poland’s PGNiG has also signed a number of deals with US LNG suppliers to boost its import portfolio. But just because you have an LNG import terminal doesn’t mean cargoes will come. In fact, European gas prices do not seem to be attracting US LNG despite low Henry Hub prices, with the increase in European gas demand met mainly by Russian gas imports over the past two years. LNG flows instead are following price signals from China and other Asian buyers, which are likely to have incrementally higher demand in the coming decades.

Spy story

The Russian “threat” has also led the UK to make some uneconomic noises with regard to gas supplies. Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK was “looking to other countries” for gas supply amid worsening relations with Russia triggered by the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK in March this year. Estimates of Russian gas sales in the UK vary, but a closer look at import flows suggest that the UK needs Russian gas to some extent – physical flows are estimated at around 6 Bcm/year, all centered on the winter months, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.

“There is a lot of geopolitical argy-bargy around Russian gas, with a lot of people trying hard not to say the real reason which is that they don’t like or trust president Putin and therefore they don’t want Russian gas,” Stern said. In the meantime, the UK almost fell foul of US sanctions against Iran given that one of the UK’s key gas producing assets, Rhum, could have come under the renewed measures from Washington. As it happened, the US gave the BP-operated field – co-owned by Iran’s state-owned NIOC – an exemption from sanctions through to October 2019.

Russia also remains a target of US foreign policy, with the recent accusations of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election leading to the threat of further sanctions against Moscow. There is a risk that if more evidence comes to light of Russian political interference abroad, or if Moscow makes any more aggressive moves toward its neighbors, that the US – and the EU – would be forced to act to penalize Moscow’s energy sector further. BP CEO Bob Dudley warned in October that any escalation of sanctions targeting Russia’s major oil and gas companies – such as Rosneft, Lukoil or Gazprom – would “shut down” Europe’s energy systems. Given the interdependence between Russia and Europe on gas supplies, it might require a serious shift in the political relationship to trigger any action, but anything is possible.

The role of the US is more nuanced. Washington – as it has done for decades – continues to attempt European gas market interventions with regard to Russia, with the difference that now it has its own LNG to sell. When it threatened sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline it prompted a particularly strong reaction from Germany and Austria, whose governments urged Washington to basically mind its own business. The issue of Nord Stream 2 – the planned 55 Bcm/year pipeline from Russia to Germany bypassing Ukraine – has become extraordinarily political and has effectively divided Europe. Brussels and most of the countries of eastern Europe are dead against the project, while the home nations of its western European financial backers – Anglo-Dutch Shell, France’s Engie, Austria’s OMV and Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall – have been more tight-lipped on the issue.

The European Commission has also urged Moscow to commit to continuing transit via Ukraine to retain gas source and route diversity. Russia remains intent on sidelining Kiev from its European gas transit arrangements, while the recent arbitration awards from the Stockholm court left Ukraine’s Naftogaz $2.6 billion better off. Not that Gazprom believes it should have to pay up. In the meantime, talks are being held at technical level between the energy ministries of Russia and Ukraine, and the EC, about what future Russian gas transit via Ukraine to Europe would look like.

It seems inevitable that some kind of deal will be reached – not least if Nord Stream 2 is delayed past its planned end-2019 startup – given how high the stakes are for both players. Ukraine has a good negotiating position – Gazprom has legally binding supply contracts in place with customers and if it cannot get the gas to them, it would be in breach of those contracts and face stiff penalties.

Italian job

Pipeline politics are also being played out elsewhere, with Italy at the center of the most recent controversy. Against all expectations, Rome has emerged as an unlikely stumbling block to the completion of the Southern Gas Corridor to bring Azeri gas to Europe.

There have been question marks over whether the new Italian government, which came to power in May, would look to block the TAP project, with environment minister Sergio Costa dismissing the pipeline as “pointless” and questioning its economic viability. Any delays to the construction of the pipeline infrastructure off – and onshore Italy could push back the timeline for TAP past its 2020 start date.

Political moves of a different kind are under way in Romania, meanwhile, where the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is trying to push through new legislation that would see at least 50% of new Romanian offshore gas production reserved for the domestic market. Producers – including ExxonMobil and Austria’s OMV which are hoping to develop the 84 Bcm Neptun gas field in the Romanian sector of the Black Sea – have said they would find it difficult to move to final investment decision under such conditions. The PSD wants Black Sea gas output to predominantly be used for Romania’s “re-industrialization” and economic development. But Bucharest could be cutting off its nose to spite its face if it doesn’t give companies enough incentive to invest – no gas production at all is no good for anyone.

European gas prices and demand are also to some degree at the mercy of developments in other commodities – and politics and oil go hand in hand. Higher oil prices, in particular, tend to filter through to the broader energy complex and LNG prices in particular. The emergence of President Trump’s use of social media in a bid to put pressure on oil producers, especially OPEC, is a staggering development. And the recent bull run in oil is due mainly to the US reimposition of sanctions against Iran.

Other political decision-making is making its impact felt too: the US-China trade war is expected to have a dampening effect on global energy demand, while the specific move by Beijing to impose a 10% tariff on US LNG is expected to lead to more inefficiencies in the global LNG market, dragging up prices and raising questions over the economics of the second wave of US LNG projects.

Government policy on nuclear power is also a key factor in gas demand evolution. In the UK, the government’s decision to back the mega-expensive Hinkley Point nuclear power station despite strong opposition and limited economic value raised many eyebrows given the 3.2 GW project is expected to cost more than £24 billion ($31 billion) through its lifetime.

Meanwhile, the possibility of a rise to power in the UK of a Labour government – which has pledged to renationalize the UK energy sector – would be representative of politics outweighing economics in the most extreme of examples.

Environmental motivation

Other political decisions on energy are driven by more reasonable aims – such as environmental protection or supply security. The Dutch government has forced Shell and ExxonMobil to halt production at the giant onshore Groningen field by 2030, but likely much before then, leaving some 450 Bcm of gas in the ground.

Gas demand will also be buoyed in the future once the phase-out of coal in power generation across numerous countries in Europe takes full hold later in the 2020s. France’s plans to reduce dependence on its huge nuclear fleet could be revised with the country’s energy future linked to whichever administration is in power. A pan-european carbon price would also incentivize gas over coal, while renewables subsidies across Europe would impact gas demand to the downside.

So what of the future? It seems clear that the shift toward political decision-making in energy policy is here to stay for a while yet. New infrastructure – even if it is arguably in the wrong place or with questionable motivation – would likely be bearish for wholesale gas prices as it adds flexibility and optionality, but the costs will be passed on into network charges and energy bills.

Trade flows will shift – particularly on the back of increased LNG import capacity and a pick-up in US LNG imports – while the routes taken by Russian pipeline gas to Europe may look very different in a couple of years depending on political decisions.

Energy policy remains an important issue for voters, and with the rise of the populist governments in key countries, it is not altogether surprising to see such a change. It may require a change in the current state of global politics before economics can again take its place as the key driver of energy markets.

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