Can Russia and China Break the Gas Supply Price Deadlock?

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"Chinese natural gas demand is expected to continue to strengthen in the next decade, and part of its needs could still be met by Russian imports despite the continued deadlock over a pricing policy."

Growth in Chinese demand for natural gas is expected to continue to strengthen in the next decade, and part of its needs could still be met by Russian imports despite the continued deadlock over a pricing policy acceptable to both sides.

Moscow and Beijing were expected last year to sign off on a huge supply deal—provisionally agreed back in 2009—but there still seems to be a disagreement over how much China is willing to pay.

As time drags on, China hopes it will be able to drive the price lower by talking up its shale gas production potential.

Russia's problem also lies in the fact that it cannot compete for the western Chinese market because this is dominated now by imports from Turkmenistan at what is considered a favorable price.

Because of that, analysts say Russia would have to supply China from new fields in East Siberia, which are costly to develop given the remote and harsh environmental conditions.

"Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in due course, have cornered the western Chinese market at a price level Russia does not want to meet," Colin Smith, head of energy at investment bank VTB Capital, said.

"Russia will have to focus on eastern markets in China," Smith said a recent briefing in London. "It is very unlikely China will contract to buy Russian gas into the west of the country as Moscow is unwilling to match the price China pays for Turkmen gas."

Turkmenistan began exporting gas to China in 2009 with volumes set to reach 30 billion cubic meters a year. China has also asked Ashgabat to increase volumes to 65 Bcm/year within the next five to 10 years. This, together with China's current production and imports of LNG, mean China is well supplied at least for the next few years.

"China doesn't need Russian gas until at least 2015," Smith said.

Role for Russia

But there is definitely still a role for Russian gas to play in China's supply mix, not least as the east of China is where the major demand centers are, and Turkmenistan could not supply at the same price as to the west because of the transportation cost.

"Turkmen gas to the east [of China] would be loss-making because of the netback," Smith said.

Some analysts believe a deal between China and Russia on a long-term gas supply deal could be closer than many think.

"We think supply of gas through pipeline from Russia to China will be realized very soon," Xia Yishang, director of Beijing's Center for Strategic Energy Studies, told a conference on Sino-Russian-Kazakh energy relations in Beijing this week.

He added: "There are various problems in Russia-China cooperation—but we can always cut a deal." He also said the governments in Beijing and Moscow had the power to override any concerns their energy companies might have about striking such a deal.

China's CNPC is understood to be wary about purchasing gas from Russian fields in Western Siberia that might also be able to feed their gas to European markets, arguing instead that Russia should agree that supply should some from fields further East that would be specifically dedicated to serving the Chinese market.

"The companies concerned are state-owned, so they have to listen to their governments to some degree. I firmly believe that although there will be problems, cooperation will continue and prospects for energy cooperation are very interesting," Xia said.

Julian Lee, senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London, considered that Beijing was in a stronger position than Moscow in terms of securing a gas agreement on terms favored by China.

He argued that if China could get agreement on Russian gas, it would adopt plans and programs that use that gas; if it could not, it would adopt plans that did without.

Chinese Demand

In 2009, Gazprom and CNPC signed a framework agreement that could eventually see almost 70 Bcm/year of Russian gas sent to China for the next 30 years.

Chinese demand is set to soar as it becomes a bigger part of the country's power generation mix. Current consumption is around 15 Bcf/day (425 million cu m/d or 155 Bcm/year), and some analysts say this figure could double by 2030.

Beijing has set ambitious production targets for its shale gas output, forecasting production of 6.5 Bcm/year by the end of 2015.

VTB's Smith believes the target could be overly ambitious. "The targets are unrealistic," he said.

Wiktor Bielski, VTB's global head of commodities, added that shale gas developments could be hampered by the need for vast quantities of water to inject into the shale rock.

"To develop shale gas, where is the water going to come from? China's Achilles heel is it has very little domestic gas, and shale gas is a long way off," Bielski said.

"There is a lot of tension on the policy side to do with gas prices, and it will be a challenge to achieve shale gas output targets." So despite Beijing's best efforts to negotiate a Russian gas import price downward, Russia still has the advantage of at least having its gas resources ready to send to China.

The next months could prove crucial with both sides wanting to be seen as holding out for a favorable price. As the dispute over the price of oil supplies—China recently won a $1.50/b discount on its imports of crude from Russia—shows, negotiations on gas will be very delicate.

"The political relationship is somewhat wary," VTB's Smith said. -Stuart Elliott and John Roberts, Platts

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