TUESDAY, MARCH 25, 2014
It was not that long ago that Gazprom was riding high around the world, as it supplied large quantities of its own and Turkmen gas to Europe, and was negotiating to sell more into China and Asia in general. Then Turkmenistan and China arranged their own deal, and with the construction of a direct pipeline between the two countries, suddenly the market was no longer running entirely Gazprom’s way. They could no longer mandate that Turkmenistan take the price that they offered at the time that Russia controlled all the pipelines that carried the gas to market. And with that change, and the changing natural gas market, so Gazprom’s fortunes have started to teeter.
At the same time the anticipated Russian market in the United States, which would have been supplied from newly developed Russian Artic reserves such as those in the Shtokman field are no longer needed, as the American shale gases have come onto the market in increasing quantities. The world has, in short, become a somewhat less favorable place for Gazprom and the Chinese have hesitated to commit to a further order of natural gas, in part because they anticipate getting a better deal for the fuel than Gazprom would like them to pay.
Russia would like, and is anticipating, that the deal for some 38 billion cubic meters/year of natural gas, starting in 2018 will be signed when President Putin visits China in May. (In context Russia, which supplies about 26% of European natural gas, sends them around 162 bcm per year). Negotiations over the sale of the gas have dragged on for years, having first started in 2004 but the major disagreement continues to be over price. At a time when Norway is seeing a peak in production and Qatar is moving more of its sales to Asia, Russia had seen an increase in European sales, and has been able to move that gas at a price of $387 per 1,000 cubic meters (or $10.54 per kcf/MMBtu. The price of such gas in the US is quite a bit cheaper.
Figure 1. Natural gas prices in the United States. (EIA )
Russia would like to get a price of around $400 per kcm ($10.89 per kcf) with the slight extra going to pay for the pipeline and delivery costs. Whether the two countries can come to an agreement on the price may well now depend on how vulnerable Russia really is to any pressure on its markets from other sources of natural gas. Japan, for example, is now considering re-opening its nuclear power stations, as the costs for imported fuel are having significant consequences on their attempts at economic growth.
Similarly there is talk that the United States may become a significant player on the world stage by exporting LNG as it moves into greater surplus at home, thereby providing another threat to Russian sales. Part of the problem with that idea comes from the costs of producing the gas, relative to the existing price being obtained for it, and part on the amount of natural gas viably available. Consider that, at present, some of the earlier shale gas fields, such as the Barnett, Fayetteville and Haynesville are showing signs of having peaked.
Figure 2. Monthly natural gas production from shale fields (EIA)
While production from the Marcellus continues to rise, there is some question as to whether the Eagle Ford is reaching peak productionalthough that discussion, at the moment relates more to oil production. However given that it is the liquid portion of the production that is the more profitable this still drives the question.
And in this regard, the rising costs of wells, against the more difficult to assure profits is beginning to have an impact on the willingness of companies in the United States to invest the large quantities of capital into new wells that is needed to sustain and grow production. A recent article in Rigzone took note that the major oil companies are rethinking their strategies of investment, with some reorganization of their plans in particular for investment in shale fields. This raises a question for the author:
Another question for the industry is who will supply the risk capital for exploratory drilling, both on and offshore, if the majors pull back their spending? Onshore, for the past few years, a chunk of that capital has been supplied by private equity investors who have supported exploration and production teams in start-up ventures. They have also provided additional capital to existing companies allowing them to purchase acreage or companies to improve their prospect inventory. Unfortunately, the results of the shale revolution have been disappointing, leading to significant asset impairment charges and negative cash flows as the spending to drill new wells in order to gain and hold leases has exceeded production revenues, given the drop in domestic natural gas prices. Will that capital continue to be available, or will it, too, begin demanding profits rather than reserve additions and production growth?
Before investors put up the money for new LNG plants they need to be assured that there will be a financial return for that investment. Given that it takes time for such a market to evolve, and given the need that Russia has to sustain its market and potentially to increase it, the volumes that the US might put into play are likely to be small, with little other than political impact likely.
If Russia recognizes this, and feels relatively confident that Europe must continue to buy natural gas from Gazprom, particularly with the current move by Europe away from other sources of fuel such as coal, then they are likely to be more resistant to bringing the price down for their Chinese customers. On the other hand if China thinks that it might be able to get a better deal from Iran, were sanctions to ease, or from other MENA countries, then – thinking perhaps that Russia needs the sale more – they might toughen their position and the price debate may continue.
It will be interesting to see if it resolves within the next few weeks, and if so, at what a price.