Why V. Socor is wrong. Or Austrians show their small size

Following the gas sector in Europe can be exciting, particularly watching the marathon-like stamina of the backers of South Stream and Nabucco. But the emergence of obstacles, or the use of strategic moves, should come as no surprise to spectators. Wrapped up in the Great Gas Game, are geopolitics and individual tactics. Russians like to strong arm their way through, while the Europeans like to appear business like. But what happens when the participants start to draft off the backs of the other competitor? Should we be shocked? There is no rule book, so we shouldn’t be.

The news that the big Nabucco leader, OMV is establishing a joint company with Gazprom to build and operate a section of South Stream in Austria was big news. One of those remarking on this is the highly respected commentator, Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation. In commenting on this development he states,

The Gazprom-OMV agreement raises at least theoretically the possibility that the South Stream pipeline could outrun and overtake Nabucco in Austria, with Gazprom reaching Baumgarten ahead of the EU-backed project….

Gazprom’s move in Austria forms part of its general mobilization of business and political allies in Europe to stop the Nabucco project.

The explanation and the possible reasoning that Socor gives for Gazprom’s move and the potential impact that this has on one level are correct. But deeper down, the analysis falls short for three reasons. The news that a joint venture between Gazprom and a Nabucco member was established are indicative of things to come, and shouldn’t really be unexpected.

First, Despite what the European countries think of themselves, they have small companies. And in Central Eastern Europe, where the two big gas pipeline projects pass through, is it even theoretically possible that Nabucco and South Stream will be built without the participation of each countries’ main gas company? Such as OMV for Austria and MOL for Hungary. In Hungary, the Hungarian government hides behind the large state owned electricity company, MVM to play with the Russians. However, the technical studies for the joint Russian-Hungarian South Stream project company are being conducted by MOL (a Nabucco member). When it comes to expertise there is no real alternative than the ‘private’ companies that are already in the Nabucco Consortium.

Second, so far Nabucco is the commercial pipeline and South Stream is the political one. In this piece a while ago, I stated the hard decision making the Hungarians would have to make in eventually choosing South Stream or Nabucco. Will it be political or commercial interests that drive participation in ONE gas project? Because ultimately, the Hungarian government (like the other governments) is going to need to pump some money into these projects. And things are tight, so tough decisions will need to be made. Not just hand shakes and saying, “sure, let’s do lunch next week to discuss it- again.”

As I wrote before, Bulgaria is already ahead of the game, telling the EU, “if you want us to participate in Nabucco, then don’t count our government debt that we’ll have to take on to finance it.”

The third reason Socor is wrong to be paranoid about this Russian/OMV deal is – it is old news. (I say paranoid, because one of the great things Socor does, is to draw on paranoia of Russian intentions – I think he does this well, since those not living in these region do under estimate/not understand, the Russian energy moves in the region). Yes, OLD NEWS. Maybe I over estimate the knowledge that people have about these projects, but for the bankers, politicians and those in the gas sectors, the strategies and approaches of Nabucco and South Stream partners have been on display for a few years now. Those following these projects should not be surprised by some consolidation/cooperation of the projects. The Austrians and Russians are old friends, therefore, it is easier for them to go first, than the Hungarians and Russians, who currently have some strained relations (particularly over MOL/Surgetneftegaz shares).

The marathon is now turning into a grueling marathon with strong head winds. Now Nabucco won’t be operating until 2017. The necessity of participating companies and governments to begin to show a few cards should not be unexpected. Can Nabucco or South Stream really be built in Austria or Hungary without OMV or MOL? No. The finish line is a  long way off, but what is unknown is for how long the game that both of these gas pipelines will be built independently of each other will go on. In Austria, the OMV/Gazprom section is only 50 km. However, for the Hungarians both pipelines traverse large sections of the country. The choice between the political South Stream and the (somewhat) commercial Nabucco will need to be decided closer to the end. As in a marathon, if you set a quick pace at the beginning you just may be crawling to the finish. The question is will both projects being crawling or will they be standing and supporter each other at the end?