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2015-01-11 14:25:00



After last year's plunges in oil and the ruble, Russian President Vladimir Putin now has another thing to worry about: the price of natural gas.

While the fuel held up better than oil last year, weakening just about half as much, the average cost on Europe's biggest open market will fall 13 percent this year to the lowest since 2010, according to the median of 13 traders, brokers and analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Part of the reason for the drop is that global production capacity of liquefied natural gas will jump the most in four years, boosting competition for Russian pipeline flows that meet almost a third of Europe's demand.

Brent crude, used to help price state-owned OAO Gazprom's gas sales to Europe, slumped 48 percent last year on global oversupply. Russia gets two-thirds of its export revenue from oil and gas and Putin has warned the nation of a recession as the world's biggest energy exporter also contends with a 34 percent drop in its currency versus the euro.

"There are all these factors coming in that are not really great for Russia in terms of its position as a supplier of natural gas to Europe," Daragh McDowell, a senior analyst at Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft, who has studied Russia for about 10 years, said by phone. "Russia's hand is weak and is getting a lot weaker."

Brent fell 0.8 percent to $50.74 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange at 5:51 p.m. London time. It is trading near the lowest level in more than 5 1/2 years.

Benchmark Prices

U.K. gas prices, a European benchmark, will average 44.5 pence a therm ($6.69 a million British thermal units) this year, according to the survey. That compares with 51 pence a therm for the front-month contract in 2014 and 67.1 pence in 2013. The contract settled at 46.23 pence today on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London.

Lower oil prices will start to fully feed into Russia's long-term gas contracts as early as April, Citigroup Inc. said in a Dec. 15 report. Almost half of Europe's wholesale gas contracts are linked to oil, with the impact showing up with a lag of six to nine months.

Global LNG output will expand by 5 percent, or 14 million metric tons, this year, according to Bank of America Corp. That's the fastest pace since 2011 as new projects start from the U.S. to Australia.

European LNG imports have fallen since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 boosted demand in Japan, the world's biggest consumer. A drop in Asian prices will help reverse the decline in deliveries to Europe, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said in its latest quarterly report on gas markets. Northeast Asian spot LNG prices have declined 49 percent from a record in February, according to New York-based World Gas Intelligence.

European Imports

Because of the decline in Asian prices and demand, Europe's imports of LNG will rise 18 percent in 2015 to 41.7 million tons, according to Energy Aspects Ltd., a consultant to the industry.

"The European natural gas market has been short of LNG over the last few years because prices in Asia were so high," Sabine Schels, the London-based head of energy strategy at BofA, said by e-mail on Jan. 6. "After four or five years of extreme tightness, there will be a multiyear bear market, which ultimately means that there will be more cargoes left for Europe."

While LNG supplies to Europe will rise, growth this year will be "marginal" as most new plants start producing at the end of the year, said Thierry Bros, an analyst at Societe Generale SA in Paris. Lower prices may also mean some LNG facilities won't be built.

Gas Sales

Russia gets 14 percent of its export sales from gas. State-run Gazprom's revenue will drop 7.6 percent to 6.13 trillion rubles ($99 billion) in fiscal year 2015, the first decline since 2009, according to the mean estimate of 18 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Sergei Kupriyanov, a spokesman with Gazprom in Moscow, didn't respond to three phone calls seeking comment on the gas market during public holidays in Russia.

Russia also faces lower demand in the European Union, its biggest gas market. Consumption in the 28-nation bloc declined 9 percent last year, the fourth annual drop, according to a forecast by Brussels-based lobby group Eurogas.

"You have a triple negative impact on the demand for Russian gas," Georgi Slavov, head of basic resources research at brokerage Marex Spectron Group, said Dec. 23. "You have increasing energy efficiency of most of the economies in Europe, you have relatively weak economic conditions, which translate into weak demand for gas, and you also have the drive of certain countries to diversify away from Russian gas on geopolitical grounds."

Summer Arrivals

Most LNG will arrive in Europe during the summer, according to Energy Aspects, boosting inventories already at their highest for this time of year since at least 2009. That would damp summer prices and increase the incentive to store, said Niall Trimble, managing director at The Energy Contract Co., whose clients include GDF Suez SA and Statoil ASA.

"There's potential for summer-winter spreads to widen as you see all this new LNG capacity come to the market," Schels said by phone from London Dec. 2. This "should absolutely help increase security of supply in Europe."

Russia, which spent more than $80 billion last year to stem the ruble's decline, will probably try to keep its European gas market share by discounting prices, according to Eurasia Group. A sliding ruble may also mean Gazprom won't reduce supplies, Societe Generale said in a report yesterday, estimating the cost of Russian gas delivered to Europe at 36 pence a therm. Russia's economy may shrink 4.5 percent this year with oil at $60 per barrel, the central bank said Dec. 15.

"In terms of revenues, gas is a smaller proportion than oil," Leslie Palti-Guzman, an analyst at Eurasia Group in New York, said by telephone on Dec. 17. "But at the end of the day, when you have a bad fiscal situation, everything becomes important."




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