MARKET HAS GONE AGAINST
A flagship Russian gas project may soon test Moscow's newfound willingness to cede greater control of its energy assets to Beijing in exchange for much-needed Chinese financing.
Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia's deputy prime minister, said that China National Petroleum Corporation could raise its stake in the $27bn Yamal liquefied natural gas project which is majority owned by Novatek.
"Novatek already has a Chinese partner in [the] Yamal LNG project and they have a 20 per cent share and they are considering increasing the share in the project," Mr Dvorkovich said.
Russia's growing eagerness to harness Chinese funding to get energy projects off the ground will be in focus this week as president Vladimir Putin holds a bilateral summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Moscow. But despite the inevitable smiles and handshakes, Chinese oil companies show no rush to invest in Russia, and energy deals between the two countries — the world's largest energy exporter and its top consumer — have been slow to materialise.
"With the drop in oil prices the Chinese are looking elsewhere to places with lower risk. Russia is just seen as a headache," says a lawyer who has advised Chinese energy companies on several investments in Russia.
As falling oil prices and western sanctions have heightened the need for external investors, the Kremlin has softened its once-staunch resistance to Chinese control of energy assets.
"Overall, we take a cautious approach to letting in our foreign partners, but we of course set no restrictions for our Chinese friends," Mr Putin said in September as he announced an invitation by state-controlled Rosneft for CNPC to invest in Vankor, one of its most prized fields. Mr Dvorkovich said Moscow was now willing to grant Chinese investors controlling stakes.
But proposed deals have run into difficulties.
Two people with direct knowledge of the Vankor negotiations said the parties had not been able to agree terms, with disagreement over the asking price adding to complications from western sanctions that prohibit long-term lending to Rosneft.
Another potential CNPC investment, in Rosneft's Taas-Yuriakh unit in east Siberia that was first announced in 2013, has also gone nowhere. Rosneft is now in talks to sell BP a stake in the same fields.
James Henderson, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, says that Chinese companies are unwilling to pay over the odds for Russian assets — regardless of any rekindled political friendship.
"The Chinese are saying: 'We want to buy your gas and oil, but it has to be at market prices.' For the Russians that's difficult to swallow because the market has gone against them. It's taking a while for them to realise that their bargaining position isn't very strong."
Even the $400bn gas supply contract between Gazprom and CNPC, signed amid great fanfare last May, has not progressed as planned. Gazprom initially hoped to secure a $25bn prepayment or loan from China to help finance the pipeline's construction. But negotiations foundered as Beijing insisted on too high an interest rate, a person familiar with the negotiations said.
A second gas deal through Russia's Altai region, which the Kremlin had suggested would be signed this week, is now unlikely in the next few months, a person close to Gazprom said.
Chinese and Russian executives and advisers said that in addition to the challenge of negotiating prices acceptable to both sides, energy deals between the countries have also been hampered by mutual distrust and Chinese concerns about antagonising the US.
"The Russians are unreliable. They are always flipping things around for their own interest," said one Chinese oil executive.
For the Kremlin, the Yamal LNG project has become symbolic of Russia's ability to execute large energy deals in spite of western sanctions, after Novatek was placed on the US sanctions list last July.
A Chinese-led financing package has been delayed several months, but people familiar with the negotiations say a deal is likely in the near future once the additional stake sale has been completed.
Chinese banks are set to lend up to $13.5bn to the project, with Russia's national wellbeing fund also contributing a Rbs150bn ($2.9bn) loan, according to recent statements from the project partners.
A company executive who declined to be named said CNPC was "engaged in talks" over Yamal and other projects. Novatek has said it is in talks to sell a 9 per cent stake in the project but did not respond to further questions.
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