Russia's energy giant Gazprom is finally facing real competition. More Russian gas producers are aiming to get a foot into global markets. For consumers, this may have the pleasant side effect of lower energy bills.
For the time being, Gazprom still enjoys the privilege of being the sole seller of Russian gas abroad. But that may soon change: the growth of liquefied gas technology means that Gazprom's own pipeline network is no longer an issue for competitors. Customers around the world could get liquefied Russian gas supplies by ship and that could mean that, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, Gazprom's export and price monopoly could soon be history.
The Energy Ministry in Moscow is already working out new export guidelines with a view to enabling competitors to make shipments of liquefied gas abroad. Two big companies are raring to go, notably energy producers Novatek and Rosneft. Like Gazprom, Rosneft too is a state owned firm, and thus controlled by the Kremlin. But even privately-owned Novatek stands a good chance of receiving state support, as the company's owners have very close ties with President Vladimir Putin.
Gazprom's vociferous competitors
The debate about Gazprom's export monopoly has been ongoing for quite some time now. As early as 2010, Gazprom signed a treaty with Novatek with regard to the western Siberian Yamal peninsula, which is considered to have one of the largest gas deposits worldwide. The deal allows Novatek to export liquid gas to Asia, for which Novatek has to pay Gazprom a fee of between 2 and 5 percent of revenue from sales.
A couple of months ago, Novatek unexpectedly received more support in its fight against Gazprom's monopoly. Igor Setshin, Rosneft's influential chief and a former government official in charge of the energy sector, said publicly that it would not harm Gazprom if other companies were allowed to export Russian gas to the Asia Pacific region.
Up until then, Rosneft had not carried out any liquid gas projects. But recently it acquired 40 licenses for the exploitation of shale gas deposits in Russia. Shale gas potential is considered to be huge, and so it made sense for Setshin to propose a liberalization of exports from shale gas areas.
Setshin's statement seems to have the support of the Russian government, judging by how fast the authorities started working on new export guidelines for the energy sector. Unofficially, it's being said that first results will be announced within the next few months. But the Energy Ministry has so far failed to directly comment on the issue.
Gazprom is involved in the discussion about the new guidelines, but has spoken more about the risks of any export liberalization.
"In view of a struggling global economy, more competition among Russian gas producers in foreign markets would result in lower prices and with it lower state income," Gazprom's public affairs department stated.
Corporate strategy challenges
Dmitry Chernyadov of the economic consultant Alfa Capital believes a step-by-step abolition of Gazprom's export monopoly could keep the energy giant's risks at bay.
Asia could soon be a target region for Russian gas exports from other firms, Europe would remain Gazprom's fiefdom. Chernyadov says authorities have little interest in seeing prices in Europe lower as a result of allowing other Russian forms to export Russian gas there, too.
But experts maintain that in the long term Gazprom will simply have to change its corporate strategy. The current corporate model of long-term contracts and a coupling of gas and oil prices will increasingly be called into question. The director of the Energy Development Foundation, Sergey Pikin, believes that Gazprom will also have to change its policy with regard to European clients.
"The company will have to become more flexible," he says. "Otherwise, it risks losing a considerable market share very quickly."