Last week President Trump met in Warsaw with Polish officials and Central and Eastern European (CEE) leaders at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The event brought together countries from the Adriatic, Black and Baltic seas to discuss development of regional infrastructure necessary to reduce their energy dependence on Russia and ensure energy security. This happened shortly after the first cargo of U.S. LNG, carried by the 162,000 cbm-capacity “Clean Ocean, entered the Polish port of Swinoujscie. Both the U.S. and Polish governments lauded the cargo and, following the meeting with Donald Trump in Warsaw, Polish President, Andrzej Duda declared a possibility of signing a long-term agreement (LTA) for the supply of U.S. LNG into Poland.
Much of Duda’s statement is political rhetoric given that LTAs are not signed between governments. Instead these contracts are commercial decisions made by individual companies. But the strong rhetoric coming from both governments in support for U.S. LNG exports to CEE is an indicator that beyond economic aspect, this trade has strong geopolitical dimension.
Given competitiveness of Russian gas and willingness of Gazprom to defend its market, it is highly unlikely that U.S. LNG imports would grant CEE (or Europe as a whole) full and unconditional natural gas independence from Russia. However, standing ability to deliver U.S. (or other non-Russian) gas to Europe provides “credible threat” and changes the bargaining positions of all parties involved. In such scenario Russia stands to lose not as much market share as geopolitical influence that it has derived from CEE’s dependence on its gas. And while LNG exports will not give the U.S. more geopolitical power in Europe per se (given the increasingly competitive global LNG market), Russia’s loss in this regard is a strategic gain for the U.S.
But can the U.S. and CEE governments truly affect the outcome of essentially commercial transactions? Can they effectively facilitate the ‘credible threat’ of U.S. LNG exports? And if so, how?
This ability depends on several factors. These include the usual: pricing and, given competitiveness of Russian gas, the willingness of the CEE governments to support a security premium on natural gas from a non-Russian supplier. Also, policy makers should pay close attention to current policy decisions within the EU that relate to infrastructure and antitrust law, as these decisions may not only impact profitability but also feasibility of LNG imports well into the future.
Forces that Influence Europe’s Natural Gas Market
The European market, while not expected to be as robust as Asia over the coming years, will remain an important source of demand for natural gas suppliers. As reported by Eurogas, going forward Europe will need to import much more natural gas than suggested by demand growth alone (Figure 1). In addition, the region is attractive given dependability of the market and reliability of European governments and customers.
Much of the future makeup of European natural gas supply might be determined not only by market forces but also by geopolitical considerations and European Union legal and antitrust decisions.
The two main decisions currently on the agenda that will have broad and direct consequences for LNG trade in Europe are: 1) permitting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, and 2) antitrust decisions by the European Commission related to Gazprom abusing its monopoly position in the CEE.
European Diversification and What It Means to Different Parties
Natural gas market diversification has become a hot topic in Europe following several breaks in Russian gas deliveries between 2005 and 2009. The 2014 crisis in Ukraine and complete shut off of natural gas supply flowing from Russia added urgency to the matter. In principle, all EU members agree that diversification is needed. But there is a visible rift between how diversification efforts are envisaged by the West versus the CEE countries.
Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics in particular are pushing for diversification away from Russia. Their efforts include a buildup of LNG infrastructure, with the already functioning LNG terminal in Lithuania and the aforementioned LNG terminal in Swinoujscie. Plans are drawn already to expand the existing terminals, and new LNG terminals are planned in Estonia. Small-scale LNG projects are also in the works in the Baltics. In addition, the region is considering facilities for regasification, storage, rebunkering, and reloading, as well as investment in rail transport to support future LNG imports.
It goes without saying that such imports will never be realized unless the price of LNG is competitive. But it is worth noting that although the price of LNG brought to Swinoujscie by U.S.-based Cheniere Energy has not been disclosed, it was lower than Russian and German EEX natural gas prices, according to the Polish trader, PGNIG.
In addition, many CEE countries may be willing to pay a certain security premium for LNG to sustain diversification efforts away from Russian natural gas. Regardless their willingness to pay such a premium rate, these countries also actively seek non-LNG market opportunities to diversify supply, including onshore projects like the Baltic pipe. This means that the ability to pay excessive prices by those countries may be moderated in the future, as the CEE gas market becomes more competitive.
The strong push toward diversification within CEE is related to two main factors. First, dependency rates on Russian natural gas have been historically very high, with some CEE countries previously entirely dependent on Russian imports (Figure 2 below). This led to uncertainty in terms of reliable gas supplies and higher prices. If non-Russian supplies of natural gas are readily available, Gazprom loses ability to charge monopoly prices. Second, there is a strong sentiment that Russia is ready and willing to use energy dependence to achieve political goals regarding its relations with CEE countries. Much of this feeling is informed by the Soviet past, but some of the uneasiness stems from more current events, including Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and annexation of Crimea. Particularly, Poland and the Baltics see LNG imports as a way to dilute the Putin Regime’s economic influence over their countries and to parry Russian attempts at undermining the democratic process and social unity.
On the other hand, Western European countries are generally content with diversifying natural gas supply routes away from Ukraine that they see as a high-risk transit territory. They are less interested in diversifying supplies away from Russia and are focused rather on lowering cost than on geopolitical implications of dependence on Russian natural gas. This is related to lower dependency rates in that region (Figure 2) and to long-standing collaboration between Western Europe’s utilities and Gazprom that is seen as reliable partner and supplier. There is much less concern about possible monopolization of the European gas market by Russia and its geopolitical implications.
Nord Stream 2, EU Antitrust Decisions & “Credible Threat” of U.S. LNG Imports
Whether CEE countries will be able to achieve their goal of natural gas market diversification and whether U.S. and other LNG producers will have access to the European market will depend as much on price as on other factors. When it comes to price Russia has significant and undisputed advantage. But EU’s policy framework, infrastructure buildup and willingness of countries to support non-Russian supplies will define boundaries within which market forces operate. As such, these factors will determine whether Russian gas dominance in Europe (particularly in CEE) will be strictly commercial or whether it will continue to yield geopolitical power. Construction of Nord Stream 2 and EU antitrust decisions are currently the two decisions that will have a bearing in this regard and where government’s, and not companies, can influence the outcomes.
Nord Stream 2 (NS2) is planned to cross directly from Russia to Germany. The new pipeline is supposed to accompany the already existing Nord Stream 1, reducing the need for the Ukrainian transit route. The plan is constituent with Western Europe’s efforts to diversify natural gas routes away from the risky transit territory. CEE countries argue against the pipeline, which in their view would damage their efforts geared toward diversity of supply and reducing dependence on Russian gas. If recent research is correct, these fears may be well substantiated. The research shows that NS2 would allow Gazprom to pre-empt diversification measures by using the entire capacity of current pipeline infrastructure. With pipelines committed to Russian gas, Gazprom could deter other potential sources of supply from entering the market and keep prices in CEE countries high.
Gazprom current commitments in the Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) antitrust investigation may have similar consequences. Considered soft, regarding the time and scale of alleged anticompetitive practices that affected trade in the CEE, they would possibly result in eliminating competition from other sources of natural gas supply (though, as opposed to NS2 they do not seem to increase prices of natural gas in the CEE or elsewhere in Europe). And while these commitments may be changed in the course of further proceedings, a soft response from the EU indicates general tendency and provides a precedent for future decisions.
EU decisions on NS2 and antitrust will have a profound impact on creating favorable conditions for U.S. LNG in European markets and whether it will be able to provide the ‘credible threat’ to Russian natural gas dominance. Poland and the Baltics are pushing hard against NS2 in an effort to advance their diversification efforts. The U.S. government is also acutely aware of the problem and has engaged in anti-NS2 sanctions and anti-NS2 diplomacy in the region. But there is a noticeable lack of involvement from other CEE countries. Thanks to recent infrastructure and regional cooperation agreements these countries feel more secure when it comes to natural gas deliveries not realizing the potential negative effects NS2 may have, once completed.
This lack of engagement, together with Western Europe’s limited view of diversification may well be responsible for Russia regaining its position as Europe’s dominant natural gas supplier, a position that has been seemingly slipping away from Russia in recent years as LNG technology took off (Figure 3). This is critical especially now as the European Commission (EC) seeks member-state approval to negotiate with Russia on NS2 with an intent to extent at least main provisions of the EU natural gas legal framework (Third Party Access, unbundling) onto NS2.
Is There a Hope for U.S. LNG Exports to Europe?
The first U.S. LNG cargo to Poland is a result of a one-off transaction between Chenier and a newly established Polish trading office in London. Although it is probable that future LNG deals will be concluded later this year, the problem of the long-term profitability of U.S. exports of this commodity to the EU is still open. Governments have little say as to what contracts are signed but they have the power to affect market conditions within which companies operate. Currently, NS2 and to a smaller extent, EU antitrust decisions are factors, which governments should consider if they want to affect future access to Europe’s natural gas market.
When it comes to the U.S., its government has been active in supporting European energy diversity in many ways, including active opposition to the NS2 pipeline via unilateral U.S. sanctions against Russia and diplomatic assurances in the Baltics and Poland. But this may not be enough. There also may be a value in the U.S. focusing on issue diplomacy in those European (CEE and non-CEE) countries that are currently quiet or in support of NS2 but would ultimately lose if NS2 comes to be.
That being said any success of CEE and U.S. efforts does not guarantee unobstructed flow of U.S. (or any other) LNG to the European market. However, ability to access that market by any non-Russian supplier will provide an effective check on both, Russia’s pricing policy and the influence that country has historically derived from its monopoly over the CEE market.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com and can be viewed here.