Friday, January 23, 2009

After the gas conflict

by Katinka Barysch

On January 20th, Russian gas started flowing again through Ukraine, after a two-week shut-down that had left people in South East Europe freezing and factories idle. The relief across Europe was palpable but the confusion about what happened is still there.

First, both Russia and Ukraine said that the dispute was about money that Naftogaz, the Ukrainian gas company, owed to Russia’s monopoly Gazprom for last year’s deliveries. Then it was about the price the Ukrainians should pay in 2009 for the Russian (or Turkmen) gas that it uses domestically. Then Ukraine tore up a contract about gas transport to Europe and threw transit fees into the negotiations too. If this was not complicated enough, the dispute then centred on ‘technical’ gas that is needed to keep up volumes in Ukraine’s pipelines. When a handful of European gas companies offered to buy this technical gas in order to get things moving again, the Russians said that this wasn’t really the problem. At one point, Russia claimed that it was sending gas to Ukraine but Ukraine refused to accept it. Ukraine said the gas was coming down the wrong pipe and could only be delivered to Europe if it shut off supplies to Ukrainian factories and households. A group of observers cobbled together by the EU to find out whether gas was actually flowing from Russia to Ukraine never got down to work. The role of RosUkrEnergo, the lucrative trading company at the heart of the Russian-Ukrainian gas deliveries was, as always, unclear. Add the frosty political climate between an angry and increasingly desperate Russia and a divided and even more desperate Ukraine, and the situation is almost impossible for outsiders to understand.

Rumours and conspiracy theories proliferated. PR efforts were ramped up. Insults flew. Various ‘insiders’ offered diametrically opposed accounts of what was happening. The overall impression was that neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians wanted the EU to understand what the stand-off was about. If the parties involved prefer confusion and obscurity, any attempt at mediation – as launched by the EU, numerous European governments and the gas companies in the EU – is bound to fail.

In theory, the conflict has now been resolved. Prime Ministers Putin and Tymoshenko signed a deal on January 19th that is said to be very similar to an understanding they had already reached back in October (details of supply contracts are not usually published, not even those between Gazprom and EU energy companies). According to press reports, the new agreement runs for ten years, and therefore eliminates the haggling that has become an annual ritual since the early 1990s. As from next year, Ukraine will no longer receive subsidised gas from Russia but pay a price that is linked to the one of fuel oil, like all companies in the EU do. In turn, Gazprom will no longer get a discount on the transit fees it will pay Ukraine for shipping more than 120 billion cubic metres gas westwards every year. Under such a deal, there would be no place for shady middlemen – although RosUkrEnergo is reportedly moving into Ukraine’s domestic gas trade.

Does this mean that a repeat of the gas war is unlikely or even impossible? It is hard to say. The EU should not speculate but recount those things it knows for sure: first, both Russia and Ukraine considered it more important to fight for their narrow interests in this energy dispute than to defend their reputations as reliable supplier and transit state, respectively. This is deeply worrying. Second, Russia will not break up Gazprom. Ukraine has rejected the idea of running its pipeline system as a three-way consortium with Russian and European involvement. Monopolies have a tendency to become opaque and greedy unless properly regulated and monitored. Neither Russia nor Ukraine seem keen on doing this. An unpublished contract may or may not be enough to ensure the reliability of Gazprom and Naftogaz (and any intermediary that may yet follow RosUkrEnergo). Third, Russian gas accounts for a quarter of total EU consumption, and 80 per cent of this comes through Ukraine. For some EU countries the dependency is 100 per cent. Even if the supplier was Norway and the transit country Switzerland, this would be an uncomfortable position to be in.

To increase their energy security in the face of such uncertainty, the Europeans do not need to do anything they are not doing – or planning to do – already. The EU has already agreed targets for using more renewables and saving energy (although the latter is non-binding). A new liberalisation directive – if properly enforced – should help to build a more integrated EU energy market. The objective of constructing more interconnections between national gas markets has been there for years. A new initiative to link South East European gas markets (called NETS: new European transmission system) looks a little more concrete, and could get a boost since South East Europe was the region worst affected by the cut-off. On January 26th and 27th, the Hungarians are hosting a ‘Nabucco summit’ for consortium members and potential suppliers for this planned pipeline through Turkey and the Balkans. The project could do with a political push, as well as fresh ideas for financing it. As for its potential supplies, the EU is stepping up efforts to get a big contract with Azerbaijan. And two of the Nabucco consortium members, Austria’s OMV and Germany’s RWE, announced in December that they are dusting off plans to build a trans-Caspian pipeline to get Turkmen gas into Nabucco.

At their spring summit in March, EU leaders will discuss the Commission’s ‘strategic energy review’ (published in November, 2008). It contains useful ideas, for example a proposal to pool EU resources for securing contracts with outside suppliers such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. EU leaders now need to focus on what they can do through concrete steps and investments to increase the EU’s energy security, not speculate about whether Russia and Ukraine may stick to their latest deal.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

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