Tag Archives: Gas

A strong Hungary is Independent from Russia, not from EU

We have a date. January 1, 2015 when the gas can start to flow from Hungary to Ukraine. This according to reports from a meeting held between Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary needs until then to keep pumping gas from Russia, through Ukraine into Hungary – thus it can’t do any reverse flow to help the Ukrainian’s out.

I think I was too charitable on a piece I published a few weeks ago about Hungary suspending gas to Ukraine. I said this would only take a few weeks – this assumption was from earlier reports stating this was the time needed to ship gas to Hungary.  Magically, that’s not the case. I always try to take the conservative view and be generous to the Hungarian position, but I see this may result in under emphasizing Hungary’s dependency on Russia.

The gas that will be shipped to Ukraine in January 2015 will come via the new pipeline with Slovakia – which Orban emphasized will need to be non-Russian gas. Although, it remains a question of why the current (artificial) arrangement of gas coming from Austria being shipped to Ukraine does not work. Mind you, it is hard to separate gas molecules, so it becomes a technical (or even a slight-of-hand) question of who’s gas ends up in Ukraine. If Hungary is stopping reverse flows to Ukraine for this long of a duration, to accept Russian gas, then the capacity used should be reduced in order to facilitate west-east reverse flows. But apparently, this was not part of the deal between the Russians and Hungarians.  This longer duration amplifies my earlier comments of Hungary being constrained by the Russians.

The question remaining unresolved is whether Hungary is punishing Ukraine on purpose, or the Russians  forced Hungary to stop  assistance to Ukraine. Since my last article I’ve had conversations with people that brings up this dilemma, but my original analysis still stands. In either case, significant explanations must be given – beyond putting Hungary first, as claimed by Orban, as to why Hungary does not assist Ukraine.

If my assumption in my first article on Hungary still stands, a financially weak Hungary is dependent on Russian good will, then the EU must shape its internal policies to account for Hungary being in the Russian camp.

I recently was asked by a Hungarian official why everyone thought Hungary was doing what Russia wanted in the EU. He simply refused to accept this and viewed Russia as a threat to Hungary. I have no doubt his comments and belief were genuine. However, there are two levels of cooperation with the Russians. The first is ‘positive’ in building an energy system. This includes South Stream and expanding Paks – both highly promoted by the Orban government. The second level is ‘negative’ and actively works against EU positions. This means punishing an enemy of Russia (Ukraine), in both of its support against sanctions on Russia and cutting gas off to Ukraine. Since this is the case, it is fair to ask how Hungary is meeting its EU commitments. Because at the end of the day – the Hungarian people still view the EU as a more positive partner than Russia. Thus it is the Hungarian government that pursues, for its own agenda, alignment with Russia.

But even if we consider there is a grey area in Hungary cutting off gas to Ukraine, the main question is whether Hungary was forced into this position, so Russia could advance its position in an EU member state, or does Hungary have another agenda in using its gas and its interconnector pipelines for political and economic ends? In either case, the position Hungary has taken projects weakness and not strength which Orban constantly promotes. A weak Hungary is a danger for both the EU and its neighbors. Its now time for Hungary to get back in line with the EU energy security policy and not be the outlier. And here is why:

If Hungary is forced/willing to use its geographic position in east-west gas transit for political and economic means what other components of CEE/SEE energy security apparatus will Hungary use to project its power? At CEU we recently had Radu Dudau from Bucharest University give a lecture of energy in the Black Sea region. He pointed out that the Hungarian government with its large holding in MOL, and its ownership stake in Croatia INA provides a leverage point the Russians can play.  Thus, if Russia can pressure and/or Hungary willingly blocks gas to Ukraine, how will other energy projects be treated by Budapest.

I think this Moscow-Budapest-MOL-INA connection was a great point. Because as Professor Dudau stated, if Russia has influence through Hungary and MOL, then any LNG terminal in Croatia, whether INA or MOL owned, becomes operationally dependent on Moscow and Budapest deals.  Thus Russia indirectly controls the gas market in the Southeast and in Eastern Europe. Any efforts to build gas independency from Russia is thwarted because Moscow has leverage in Budapest which is willing/forced to accept how the network and the Croatian LNG terminal operate. Russia has been actively seeking to secure control in Croatia’s energy sector for years, and now it may have a willing partner.

It may be more profitable for the Hungarians to  be reimbursed by Russia for any LNG losses (or preventing it being built). The huge debt Hungary is taking on to expand Paks nuclear plant with the Russian loan, already places Hungary into a weaker position.  Russia can leverage this over Croatian LNG. In addition, the constant drive for lower electricity and gas prices in Hungary only feeds the country’s vulnerability to Russian influence. Hungary is dependent on cheaper and cheaper gas to keep consumer rates low. To get lower rates, it becomes more servile towards Russia to get it. Not the strong and proud Hungary Orban claims is being built. The emerging energy and economic weakness of Hungary undermines attempts to increase energy security and independence from Russian gas.  All of the southeast and eastern Europe are exposed to Russian influence through Hungary – if Hungary chooses to support Russian policies in the region. The gas wars can spread beyond the Russian/Ukraine border and enter the EU. I believe this has already happened. Hungary needs to resume gas exports to Ukraine, and stop supporting Russia’s position.

20141012_093247_lesvos2

As a concluding note (because this is very cool), I’ve written this in Lesvos, Greece while at the University of the Aegean. I’m looking right now across the Aegean Sea to Turkey. I can see it on the horizon. A revised Nabucco is essential for breaking the Russian grip. The EU needs to be very clear in sinking South Stream and building alternatives to Russian gas. Both Turkey and Greece are essential in making this happen. But more importantly, a strong and independent Hungary is the most important. It should be made very clear to the Hungarian government, just as my Hungarian acquaintance told me, that Hungary does not serve Russia. It is up to the Hungarian government leadership to ensure its independence and alignment with EU policies. Being a good neighbor would be a good first step to rectify poor policy choices. Let the gas flow to Ukraine!

 

Euro Energy Czar: Does West Europe finally get it?

The apparent creation of an energy czar for the European Union signals a harder line against Russia. A move from the days when Germany’s Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder moved from the chancellor’s chair to a Gazprom chair – represented the ‘tight’ relationship between Germany and Russia. Akin to marriages  between European monarchies. (I’ll leave it to you to develop the image of Schroder marrying into a Russian oligarch family.)

The revitalization of the eastern European countries is now represented by the appointment of Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland to lead the other European leaders in the EU Council of Europe. Tusk earlier this year championed a call for an EU gas union that was widely acceptable as a great idea – and has pushed forward the long simmering discussion of a closer EU energy union.  In 2010 former European Commission President Jacques Delors and Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek, floated the idea to build an EU energy community – drawing from the founding structure in the European Coal and Steel Community.

It is now the Polish contingent that is pushing for a ‘high official’ to coordinate all external energy policy.  The EU Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee overwhelming adopted the proposal to create an energy czar to represent a common EU energy position in the foreign policy realm. Adopting a common energy foreign energy strategy and representation – no matter how muddled by diplomatic niceties, is stepping in the right direction to address the tremendous energy security gulf between ‘old’ member states and the states joining since 2004.

As I’ve written before, there is a huge gap between the development of the energy systems in the west and east. Both financially the western EU members are able to invest and upgrade their energy systems, while the east are stuck attempting to keep prices extremely low, with limited upgrades throughout the system. This applies to rolling-out more energy efficiency measures and renewable energy. The east becomes stuck in this pipeline dependency. Unable  – and in some cases – unwilling to finance their way to a new energy system.

Independence from Russia is a nice dream, but energy is the way Russia projects its power. For some politicians, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban, staying within the Russian sphere of influence holds financial and political benefits. For the Poles, they gain politically moving away but are so wedded to the Russian gas system, and reject significant upgrading to their energy system, such as getting off the carbon road, that they remain tied.

An EU energy Czar able to counter the Czar of Russia (Putin) must be given legitimacy from EU members.This means both the Germans and the Hungarians – much line up with the Poles and seek greater independence from Russia. However, as the building of the South Stream pipelines shows, Hungary and Bulgaria are willing to move forward with Russia on the pipeline despite strong resistance from Brussels. Unilateral agreements and development projects – at the expense of the overall long term EU energy security – will fail to elevate the Czar to a meaningful position.  European countries must line up, and even lend some sovereignty to an EU high representative for energy. The foundation of the EU is based on coordination of energy and industry, let’s ensure this remains central to keeping Europe strong.

 

 

Inter-European Gas Wars: Europe’s pursuit of Energy-cide

Also published on Natural Gas Europe.

There is a gas race in Europe. This rivals the well reported US – Europe gas price difference, due to cheap US shale gas and high European imported gas prices. In an attempt to compete against the US European industry just got handed a price break in the form of lower support payments for the renewable energy sector. However, European countries also compete against each other over the price of electricity, a race to the bottom, or rather Energy-cide: the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices.

This price war also forces countries to develop strategies to keep electricity prices low. An example is Hungary’s deal with the Russians for a ‘low’ cost nuclear power plant. This inter-European energy price war holds significant long-term political and economic costs, which can hobble Europe’s competitiveness and political independence.

nuclear

The result of this inter-European price war is Russia captures the Crimean prize by understanding how the game is played. The limp EU financial sanctions to hold Russia in-check are framed as the EU punishing Russia. But this is Europe, the ‘unified’ EU action mask the inter-country price wars raging between member states. In each region this plays out differently, for those in the west of Europe (old member states) it is the result of the high initial cost of shifting towards renewable energy and the impact on industry; for those in the east (new member states), it is reliance on Russian gas and householders proportionally high utility bills.

The impact of this price war can be seen playing out in Berlin and Brussels in April, 2014. First the German government approved amendments to its renewable energy law, lowering the cost of German industry financing for renewable energy. Second, the European Commission voted to reduce payments energy intensive industry make to fund the renewable energy shift. The pressure is now intense in Western Europe to reign in energy prices and the real and potential threat of industry flight to the United States. The US, and its cheap shale gas, is held up as a magnet sucking European jobs. Europe feels the coming climate change apocalypse, just as much as a faltering economy, Russian tanks in the Crimea are simply less threatening. But this is a Brussels’ view of the world, in the east the people and politicians feel the heat from Russia.

The Hungarian government continuously lobbies against sanctions on Russia for the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. With Hungary dependent on Russia for gas and nuclear power, its current charade of low energy prices can only be maintained by the wishes of Russia. The Hungarian government secretly inked an agreement with Russia to take a 10 billion euro loan to build two new reactors. Despite no social or political debate, the overriding excuse for such a deal by Hungary’s Prime Minister was lower energy prices – even if the numbers show a doubling of electricity prices. He envisions to have Europe’s most competitive electricity cost for industry and be more competitive than the Czech Republic or Germany. Hungary will be a manufacturing powerhouse fuelled by cheap Russian nuclear power. In return, the Russian’s hold over Hungary a huge mountain of debt which they’ll use to manipulate Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies.

Other countries in Eastern Europe are the same, Bulgaria has been plagued with violent riots over electricity and gas bills. The country’s seven member energy and water regulatory commission had 17 different members and six different chairman in 2013. Poland has lost an environmental minister due to bungling the country’s shale gas ‘revolution’ – it still awaits a commercially viable well. Each country in Eastern Europe has the stated aim of having the cheapest gas and electricity and literally being a regional powerhouse. Each country wants to compete and attract industry from Western Europe. Poland wants chemical manufactures from Germany. Hungary wants auto manufacturers to set up shop. It is a continental race to the bottom.

Russia benefits in spades from intra-European conflict over energy prices while the continent as a whole attempts, by any means, to close the price gap with the US. In 2012, the German border price for gas was four times higher than the US Henry Hub price (even if this is a flawed comparison, it is often made as an excuse for needing lower EU energy prices). To close the price gap, somehow the solution is more Russian gas. Russia’s South Stream pipeline project will avoid Ukraine and deliver the same gas to Europe, without Ukrainian interference. The pipe will traverses the Black Sea, landing in Bulgaria and connecting Serbia, Hungary and Austria. When the going got tough over a year ago for South Stream’s competitor, Nabucco, which would bring non-Russian gas to these same countries, both the United States and the EU failed to step up to ensure its success. The project offered to diversify Eastern Europe’s gas supply. Instead the EU accepted another gas pipeline to Italy – a long running ally of Russia and thus acceptable to both those in Brussels and in Moscow.

nabucco and gazprom v4

The evolving gas map keeps the east boxed in: South Stream and Nord Stream. There is almost zero western support for diversification, the result is high prices and Russian dependency with low security of supply.  But is this paranoia? Not when the German partner of South Stream remarks over EU blocked talks with Russia, “If anything, the approval procedures should be accelerated, not delayed,” said Rainer Seele the Chief Executive of Wintershall.

Should the only means of leverage Ukraine holds over Russia be sped up? Just so Ukraine can be eaten faster by Russia? Hungary’s Orban signs secret deals with Russians because he knows he needs to compete against the west on price, Berlin or Paris aren’t going to send cheaper electricity or gas to the east.

The true price masters are the Russians. They see this intra-EU country price competition. They see political leaders hanging by economic-popularity threads, industry bent over a Russian pipeline – sucking gas, Bulgarians protesting over prices and burning utilities’ cars, while Viktor Orban proclaims an energy price war against Brussels while furtively flying off to Moscow. Even the ‘green’ German consumer demands cheaper electricity. Industry perception of the energy system as a whole matters, even if Russian gas is marginal in Western Europe. The closure of German nuclear was perceived as a blow against German industry, another blow is unwelcomed.

The Russians hear from European industrial and political leaders, “take the Crimea, but just help us compete against our European neighbors and America.” Energy-cide, the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices. Russia is the cat and Europe is the mouse. Russia eats part of Ukraine, while Russia also politically binds the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Germans over gas prices. Unless Europe stops its Walmart-like energy price race to the bottom, and shores up energy diversification routes for Eastern Europe, Russia will continue to be the top consumer.

Nothing says energy independence better than Russian nuclear

Energy independence, energy security and security of supply are all tightly connected concepts. Each is different and represents its own strand of knowledge and impacts. The regime of Orban that runs Hungary is dancing again with the Russians over their nuclear prowess. Back in 1999 I helped organize a conference on nuclear power in Hungary. The question then, as now, ‘Will Hungary choose Russia to build a new bloc for their nuclear power station?’ If the country is serious about energy independence, as the leadership claims, then they should not even be considering Russian nuclear power technology. But they are.

Energy is not a rational field, nor is Hungary run by rational people. This week the headline was to import Israeli gas to Hungary. It’s always good to play out the idea of independence but not actually building true independence from the Russians. The public statements by Hungary’s National Development Minister and Deputy Minister for Energy, supporting South Stream – while slamming the Nabucco consortium as high paid (private) consultants, at a recent conference on South Stream reflect the true thinking of the Government. These true feelings combined with the support of re-nationalization of the energy sector all plays into the cosy hands of Russia and the politicization of energy.

Dependency

We can begin to imagine Hungary will buy into another Russian nuclear plant and rely on Russian sourced gas being pumped through the Russian owned South Stream. Orban has stated his goal is to produce 70% of the country’s electricity from nuclear power. The country’s current reliance on Russian gas is near 80% (although this should drop slightly over time). Current electricity production is around 30% from gas. With South Stream, this dependency can be assumed to grow. Even with other diversification projects, the overall ‘normal’ business scenario is an extremely high dependency ratio. Under this scenario future domestic production from wind, solar or biomass is irrelevant, as it remains at niche production levels. Russian nuclear and Russian gas will continue to rule Hungary’s energy system.

The turn away from the EU and Western European energy companies and the embracement of Mother Russia for ‘energy security, security of supply and energy independence’ is no security at all. Once the Russian pipeline and nuclear bloc are built, Hungary will be embarking on another 50 years of dependency on Russia. By this time it will be a century of Russian dominance and dependency! Is this the ‘energy dependence’ talk that has the Orban regime on their high horse over German and French owned utilities?

Energy is politics: Hungary by accepting the subservient role in this relationship will be politically orientated towards Russia. We are only one step removed from the remark, ‘The groundwork is being laid for Hungary to join the Ukraine-Russia energy-economic alliance.’ If Hungary acceptance almost total domination of Russian in its energy supplies than it must toe the Russian line on economic, social and political matters. The EU is now being infiltrated by strong Russian influences on its Eastern borders. The choice is clear: lower gas prices for political and economic commitment to Russia vs. lost political control over domestic EU energy markets. While the EU sees its current satellites spiral back to Russia, the satellites and their revived European values and contribution to Europe are again being lost. Energy is the tip of the iceberg, it is necessary to look deeper and see what total Russian energy dependency means for Hungary, Eastern Europe and for the EU.

The Russian Rock: Re-landscaping CEE energy (in)Dependence

The recent ‘war of independence’ against Western European owned utilities in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) and South East Europe (SEE) sets the stage for re-integration into Russia’s energy sphere – and dependence. A war against electricity, gas and water prices has been raging in Hungary since 2012 while SEE countries have a longer history. The firm rejection throughout the region of privately owned utilities managed by independent regulatory institutions limits capital inflow to upgrade and diversify the region’s energy infrastructure.

Omul de tinichea transfagarashan

Benefiting from the ‘war’ against Western capital is Russia. State owned Gazprom remains the dominant and stable supplier of gas to the region’s state owned firms and centralized energy systems. The CEE (including Poland) and SEE regions reject complex market structures with competition and diversified generation technologies pushed by the EU. Full independence from Russia is no longer sought, rather a ‘safety’ margin to weather a Russian gas storm provides a low cost diversification option. Three historical periods are discussed, with the third marking the re-integration into the Russian fold.

  • Stage one, fully dependent on Russian resources and technology;
  • Stage two, building an energy system semi-independent of Russia;
  • Stage three, ‘(in)Dependence’ on Russia’s energy wealth, the recognition of benefits gained from dependence coinciding with diversification of energy sources.

The CEE and the SEE regions see energy dependence as strategic while allowing for new infrastructure, such as gas interconnectors, shale gas and LNG terminals to rebalance the energy landscape and provide space for energy independence, rebalancing the historical Russian dependence. The term, ‘(in)Dependence’ provides a encapsulating expression of how Russia remains firmly positioned in the CEE/SEE regions’ energy landscape. It is the rock in the region that despite the best efforts of multiple countries, governments and international organizations, Russia remains firmly positioned in the CEE/SEE energy landscape.

Dependence

The Central Eastern European Region, including the Southeast of Europe, is heavily dependent on Russia’s energy resources. This includes gas, oil and nuclear technology. The ability to cement through physical infrastructure and human capital during Communist period established a robust connected system of resources and expertise between the region’s countries and Russia. The headlines hold that gas security is the most contentious issue. But finding a solution to this dependency requires a complex and stable energy investment climate. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2004 and 2007 eastward expansion of the EU, diversification away from Russia for CEE countries was the overall most important headline issue. Despite concerted efforts the region has failed to find alternative sources for Russian gas and remained wedded to Russia. The era of Russian energy dependence can be seen to have evolved over decades under the technical capabilities of the Soviet Union.

We see the impact that this uncoordinated, but regional consistent energy strategy has on the CEE region: Complete reliance on Russian gas and oil imports. After the political winds shifted in 1998 and the region shifted towards Western Europe for political and economic integration these energy links were viewed as high risk entrapping the region into an almost single sided relationship where the terms are dictated from Moscow. The region may have gotten democracy and removed overt economic and political control but the energy infrastructure is a strong reminder that continues the previous political-economic relationship.

Independence

The launching of the energy independence period, away from Russia, began in the mid-1990s.  Privatization of energy assets and the establishment of energy regulators brought private capital into the energy system, transforming the role of the state. Market considerations would help guide and fund development of the national energy system. Technocratic independent regulatory institutions would oversee the region’s energy system.

Privatizations of energy companies, mainly electricity and distributions companies were never very popular, but the politicians making these decisions were aware the state was incapable of funding a renewed energy system able to operate efficiently. Bloated inefficient companies, were typical and unable – or unwilling due to political pressure, to collect from large and small consumers. In Macedonia at the time of privatization there were 500,000 individual court cases filed over fee collection. Large state owned factories paid little or nothing. Other countries mirrored this systemic inefficiency resulting in underfunded and crumbling energy systems. The entire CEE and SEE region made the hard decision to bring in mainly Western European energy companies to fund the renewal of power generation and electricity and gas distribution systems. These important energy assets were privatized, in some countries more than others, but each country, usually with strong encouragement from international organizations, did privatize. Enough to place the energy sector on a market footing.

By the mid-2000s sufficiently robust national and regional markets in electricity and gas were well under development in the CEE and SEE region. Strong market and regulatory elements were integrated into the system. Authority of the energy system typically, on a technical level, transferred from an energy minister to an ‘independent’ energy regulator, who set prices and technical standards. This technocratic system was established to ensure the long-term commitment and investments by private energy companies were secured and the system as a whole was managed to ensure its continual long-term development.

Since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis already strained relations between private energy companies and governments escalated. The underlining truth to the ‘Utility Rebellion’ of the CEE and SEE region is politicians had a hard time letting go.  From price setting, control or influence over cross-border electricity and gas interconnectors politicians have a hard time coming to terms with allowing the energy sector to operate like an open, but regulated, market. Repeated attempts to establish a transparent and unified electricity system in the Southeast of Europe has failed, despite consistent support (and pressure) from international organizations and institutions. In 2013, the tension has spilled over into outright social and political rebellion against private owners. This includes (but not limited to) some headline cases:

  • Albania: In January 2013 the energy regulator took away the license of Czech power company preventing it from operating in the country.
  • Macedonia: Disputes between Austria’s EVN and the Macedonia government over debts and investments are on-going since privatization in 2006.
  • Bulgaria: After years of building tensions, including court cases, between private investors (CEZ, EON, EVN), the spring of 2013 saw public street protests erupt over electricity and gas prices resulting in new elections, along with investigations and regulatory changes in Bulgaria’s energy sector. Although the fury is equally directed at state owned companies as well as privately owned ones.
  • Hungary: What was once a success story of privatization and equal risk levels to Western Europe, changed after the 2010 elections with the new Fidesz government.  Extra taxes on energy companies were introduced after which the energy regulator was sidelined and forced legislated price cuts above 20% in 2013, compounded by a proposed law to be passed before the 2014 elections of utilities becoming non-profit entities. Many privately owned utilities are making losses since 2011 and have slashed investments.

 

Markets and independence

The focus on market transformation contributed to two false assumptions: First, from a Western European perspective, overall EU gas supplies were not significantly exposed to Russian gas interruptions – if they were to occur at all. Russia was a stable supplier not willing to use gas as a political weapon and the governments of the CEE and SEE regions could diversify themselves; second, over time alternative sources could be secured from Europe’s ‘near abroad’. During this age of attempted energy independence, the pro-market perspective and activity created an assumption that the market would induce greater supply security, investments by Western European firms would contribute to greater energy security. However, these assumptions came to a head at the start of 2009.

Supply disruptions, between Russia and the Ukraine, were already regular seasonal events, but in 2009 the crisis cascaded into disruption to EU Member States. This disruption showed, what was already known in the region, diversification away from Russia was important for the energy security and security of supply for the region. It was not the overall EU level of dependence that matter, but the regional dependence. EU institutions woke up, but not until after they coordinated a technical response of sending gas to dried up systems in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. Afterwards, the EU threw greater effort and coordination into helping the region diversify and open up alternative routes of supply for the region. These include interconnectors, expanding gas storage, ensuring reverse flow in pipelines and instituting new procedures and guidelines to ensure a timely coordinated action in case of emergencies. However, much of this diversification is funded by national governments. Key diversification projects include:

  • Polish LNG
  • Poland’s push into shale gas
  • Hungary’s oil and gas group MOL upgraded an oil pipeline to the Adriatic, tying the region into global oil supplies.
  • Bulgaria signed an agreement to import gas from Azerbaijan starting in 2019, completely avoiding Russia by transporting the gas through Turkey and Greece.
  • Bulgaria will build interconnectors with Turkey and Greece.
  • Upgrading gas interconnectors between Hungary and neighboring countries, particularly a new Hungary-Slovak interconnector that begins to establish a north-south gas corridor to Poland.
  • Gas storage investments in Hungary and Austria
  • Western interconnectors to Austria and Germany with reverse flow capability are being built or upgraded.

Missing from these ongoing or completed projects, is the most symbolic project of all, Nabucco. The failed bid to transport Azeri gas to the SEE and CEE regions may turn out to be more politically significant than functionally significant. Existing Soviet era transport pipelines to Russia remain the only large supply route of gas into the region. Regardless of boosted interconnectors, regional LNG access or gas storage, Russia will remain the dominate gas supplier to the entire region, all the additional projects provide a boosted level of energy security and improve security of supply in times of emergency. Nonetheless, if the goal is to ensure operations through a cold winter when the gas is cut off from Russia then the region can weather a Russian storm.

The failure of Nabucco to launch prevents the region from adding the significant alternative capacity, which combined with on-going diversification projects, could reduce further Russian reliance. Nabucco, backed by a consortium of CEE, SEE and Western European companies represented the most symbolic effort for energy independence. It was the battle between competing gas pipelines through Europe’s southern gas corridor: Russia supported South Stream vs. Nabucco. The EU backed Nabucco, had the political-economic edge to deliver more gas while increasing energy security. In the end, the pure commercial decision was taken by the upstream consortium to deliver gas into the Italian market through a competitor private pipeline to Nabucco. The downstream activities in the CEE and SEE region prove themselves just as important as the upstream transit routing decisions, which together influence large scale investments into the region.

Building the Nabucco pipeline through the CEE/SEE region would require decades of commitments from all upstream extraction parties tying them into downstream distribution partners. As outlined above, past relations between the region’s governments and foreign energy investors is turbulent. If Nabucco went ahead the upstream suppliers, extracting in Azerbaijan, would be tied to the political whims in the CEE and SEE region. If the original point is to play Nabucco against the Russians, then the tables could be turned to threaten the extra capacity from the older Russian pipelines to drive prices lower once Nabucco pipes are in the ground. Fixed assets and fixed prices are only as fixed as the political winds.

Current actions of governments throughout the CEE and SEE region demonstrate independent energy regulators are used for window dressing to meet EU requirements. Energy regulators were meant to ensure the long-term investments by energy companies were protected. This has turned out to be false. Under current conditions, the forced price reductions, revoking – or the threat of revoking – licenses and continued disputes over the prices of electricity and gas creates a significant challenge to maintain necessary investment levels, upgrade or prevent a company from financial losses. It is hard to imagine the political rhetoric and actions stopping for upstream suppliers physically locked into the region and with alternative sources of gas for governments to buy.

The original energy newcomers to the region, described above, are now withdrawing – or literally being squeezed out, like in Hungary. In short, the energy investment environment has turned negative, price pressures dominate, and political along with social demands result in an unpredictable market. Despite gas being a global commodity, politically mandated cuts in electricity and gas prices force losses onto distribution companies. Building a multi-billion Euro pipeline through the region begins to weaken under the current domestic and regional conditions energy providers are met with.

The loss of Nabucco should send a clear message, and the politicians of the CEE/SEE should hear it: Market fundamentals, are the basis for investments, not political considerations. Politicians can fight downstream electricity and gas companies for lower prices, argue with Russia over contracted prices, but unless governments are prepared to pay a market price for commodities – thus subsidizing their consumers, energy companies will go elsewhere. Private capital doesn’t finance displays of populism and energy independence that in the long-term undermine both security of supply and energy security.

 (in)Dependence

Today, 2013, we have a new era, of energy (in)Dependence. It represents the limits of infrastructure development, alternative import routes and politically induced market risks. Constant political warfare with private energy companies, in most of the CEE and SEE countries, has resulted in depressed incentives for infrastructure upgrades and price instability. Building a non-Russian transit pipeline into a region of significant market instability requires incentives outweighing these negatives. Each country in the region is proclaiming energy independence, which then (laughably) increases their reliance on Russian gas and increases security of supply risks. Resiliency within national systems is less than in regionally integrated systems. Faltering now on regional integration or preventing foreign capital from entering only underfunds alternative energy solutions which displace Russian gas.

The region’s largest gas projects moving ahead mainly rely on government efforts and financing. Gas storage in Hungary, network interconnectors, Polish LNG terminal and shale gas. While these efforts are able to move the ball down the court towards greater energy security, they do not provide substantial regional upstream diversification. The original intent of privatization of energy companies was to infuse capital into the regions’ energy systems to modernize the infrastructure, governments lacked the money to redevelop the basis of their economies. The question must be asked, does this trend continue, or has energy capital taken flight?

CEE and SEE governments cannot finance a new energy system that excludes market based elements and players. EU institutions are pushing for great market transparency, elimination of state aid, stronger energy regulators, stability in prices for private energy investors, and the interlinking of national and regional markets, thus reducing the room for political interference in energy markets.

There are now a number of attraction for CEE/SEE governments to deal with Russia and maintain its dominate position in the region, and in fact, moving away from Russia now appears more dangerous as the original – and justifiable reasons for energy independence fade. Russia remains a single supplier who is ‘simple’ to deal with. The terms of gas supply are clear, ‘You buy it we deliver it.’ Not the Brussels motto of, ‘If you buy it then here are the competitive conditions that have to be fulfilled, here is the transparency that is expected, and we expect the energy regulator to make well-reasoned opinions based on professional decision making process.’ Politically, that EU garbage only works in Western Europe.

Politically for CEE countries, Moscow can now act as a counterweight against Brussels. Whether this is just symbolic or not, the political elite in the CEE region is learning to balance energy relations between the old foe and the new foe. Finding a common cooperative topic with Russia is also beneficial for on-going relations, if not energy than what? Agriculture or software? There’s nothing that says a serious relationship than building long-term energy ties with Russia. Satisfying the strong neighbor, financially and commercially on energy issues distracts them from other issues.

A cooperative relation also demonstrates that CEE countries can stand by themselves with Russia. The rules of the energy sector may be dominated by Brussels and Western European companies, but the national governments of the CEE region still have an important role to play in their national gas markets and pricing. Bilateral relations are fostered and maintained with energy. While Russian gas, in the age of independence, was viewed as a necessity, in the age of (in)dependence, negotiations demonstrate politicians are in control of their country’s energy assets and a solid relationship exists between old foes/friends. This is contrasted against the assumed friendly relations with Brussels and the EU’s demands for an independent and transparent energy sector with complex rules and limited room for political grandstanding and influence. Russia and Gazprom are more than happy to lend to the showmanship, with the price of gas possibly linked to the temperature of relations between countries. Energy (in)Dependence provides security, simplicity, political capital and limits the need for a more complex energy market to replace Russian sourced gas.

The intertwined concepts of finance and market complexity, for alternatives to Russian gas, provide another reason for energy dependence on Russia. Despite alternative gas supplies, like LNG and shale gas, becoming more available, they will only make a small dent into the domestic or regional gas market. Any alternative to Russian gas requires considerable investments into developing a functioning gas market, including a nationwide network with gas power plants. Failure to incentivize private companies to invest in alternatives to Russian sourced gas (such as shale gas) ensures continued Russian dominance, for example in Poland’s gas market. Poland values energy independence, but not even concerted investments into LNG, shale gas and interconnectors can reduce its heavy reliance on Gazprom. The same applies to all the other countries in the CEE and SEE regions.

Conclusion

The political and economic hurdles for energy independence are too high for the CEE and SEE regions: Building a new energy system, funded by private capital, requires competition and complex market structures with limited political involvement.  Extending dependence on Russia energy resources provides the opportunity to maintain centralized energy systems and using Russia as a counter weight to Brussels non-political energy market schemes.

The collapse of Nabucco represented the failure of an energy independence strategy. A high priced, visionary project that was politically supported but without the political or economic stability required for its long term success. The debate over Nabucco overshadowed the on-the-ground work of building and expanding interconnector capacities, LNG terminals, domestic gas deposits and an overall beefing up of security of supply components. Enough so that supply disruptions, from Russia or transit countries, would have a limited impact. Energy independence can be gained by small hedges against Russian agitation and action. Therefore, (in)Dependence provides a lower cost, economically and politically hedged energy strategy that balances the local politics of the CEE/SEE region and the competing demands of Brussels and Moscow. A classic Central European strategy.

 

The Risks for Shale Gas in Europe: Technology and Avoiding the Frackenstein Label

Comparing the game changing analysis of US shale gas and the reality in Europe exposes how traditional risks affect the much hyped industry. Understanding the risks for the European shale gas industry exposes a range of constraints that impact the growth of the industry. The debate around shale gas as a ‘game changer’ needs to give way – particularly in the media – to a new level of analysis that sees the industry as bound by traditional political-economic risks.

Providing an effective political-economic analysis of shale gas requires separating different elements of the industry. Just as the study of oil has multiple dimensions with a mature analysis ‘industry,’ shale gas has suffered from the element of news media hype and an over reliance on the geological and technical risk analysis of extraction. Academia and scientific forums are catching up, but while everyone waits regulators, politicians and the industry itself are being called on to make immediate decisions. This produces its own set of risks, which correspond more closely with political-economic risk that have long term impacts on the industry’s long term growth.

To read more, click here for the full Natural Gas Europe article.

 

Short, Short Nabucco Man

I decided the other week, to really focus on professional posts on this blog. As my father mentioned in my last post about Nabucco, if I swear then people won’t take me seriously. Absolutely true. 😉  But then should we always treat the world of energy so seriously? For me it is a such a great topic. Multiple perspectives offer greater insight.

Thus, when I read on Natural Gas Europe that Nabucco was changing size, my professional restraint went out the window.

A new proposal, would see a pipeline between Bulgaria and Austria with a reduced capacity approximately half of what was originally planned. The consortium however, is still maintaining the viability of the original plan. “We are in the process to calculate several scenarios, including different sizes in terms of capacity and length of the pipeline. However, our preferred scenario still is the base-case and no final decisions have been made, yet,” said Christian Dolezal, spokesman for the Nabucco consortium.

But a shorter and smaller Nabucco? Is it really the big Nabucco that we know? The one that was so attractive to so many people, the pipeline extending from the Caucasus all the way to Austria? Well, no not really. It is another pipeline plan that relies on the Turkish infrastructure (or the jumble of other pipelines that have to be sorted out) and is aimed at the short to medium term for meeting Europe’s demands. The substantial changes to the project, while retaining the Nabucco name, requires a bit of teasing to call the consortium out on their obvious gutting of the project.

The new market reality (for the short and medium term) may demonstrate that a smaller pipeline can get Europe by for some years to come. The recent cold winter and high gas demand has shown, even when Russia reduces delivers, the sizable storage facilities and greater interconnection (compared to 2009) in Europe provide an effective buffer. Southern Europe (particularly Italy), which was hit hardest in the past few weeks from reduced Russian deliveries, may benefit from Azeri gas being delivered through TAP or SEEP, now that ITGI could be out of the picture. So maybe this is the future of European gas: storage, continued reliance on Russian gas with some diversity for South East Europe and Italy. South Stream has never looked better.

As for a shorter and smaller Nabucco, it didn’t come to me right away, but then I thought… isn’t there a song about this? No, no, not the opera one…. something more modern. And well, yes there is. The teasing element for the Nabucco consortium, for the switch, needs to be expressed in song – straight from ‘bad taste hits’. And I think this song better describes the new Nabucco pipeline than the opera (I’ve posted the censored version to maintain my professionalism). And just maybe Nabucco needs a new name, the short, short man pipeline (SSMP). Meet the new Nabucco Man:


20 Fingers – Short Short Man – MyVideo

Shale gas, time for traditional risk assessment, part II

If there is ever a question of whether fossil fuels will survive the rise of renewable energy, we only need to look at the decimation of whales to understand resource depletion. The industrial harvesting of blubbery wales resulted in their near extinction from the sea in the mid-1900s (podcast). It is a stark and exaggerated comparison, but it serves the point to demonstrate the industrial drive that occurs for extracting the earths resources. It is now time to see that renewable energy, energy efficiency and even the concept of peak oil will not stop the resource drive for oil and gas. Just as the green energy movement is riding on technological advances, so is oil and gas.

Part one of this article on shale gas laid the foundation for a risk assessment. Do the laws of gravity actually apply to the high-flying shale gas industry and all the media hype? Yes, laws, regulations and even social support constrain and direct shale gas investment. In part two, of this article I will now address two types of risks that I had not expected to apply to the shale gas industry, technological lock-in and institutional lock-in. The risks on environmental compliance and regulatory risk, are the ones that jump out the most. But it is better to go deeper into these less addressed risks to understand the more obvious.

Technological advances for ‘unconventional,’ ‘tight gas,’ or ‘shale gas’ stem from (the obvious) movement from ‘conventional gas’. Technology keeps advancing. The price of oil is only on an upward trajectory. Gas is now the alternative fossil fuel; but security of supply concerns must be addressed at reasonable market prices. This can be done by using more advanced technologies to extract gas. In this review of emerging oil and gas technologies, gas to liquid technology can fuel cars, or in this review of shale technology, extraction of gas and oil from ‘super fracking’ becomes even more efficient. Both demand and supply sides of fossil fuels are now adjusting to market and technological conditions and potential.

If there are advances in technology, then why would technological risk even be an important factor to consider? My previously developed definition of technological lock-in (altered from Gregory Unruh’s, 2000 & 2002) is, “Perpetuation of a dominant design that is inferior to newer technology. Industries that have a significant systemic-technological relationship are most susceptible, due to buffered market forces.”  

Technological lock-in can also emerge through ‘institutional lock-in‘ which understands that regulatory (or other state) institutions only change slowly to protect past investments in the energy sector. Due to social and political considerations state institutions may prevent the roll-out of newer technology.  Older approved technologies will need to be used, even if output declines due to resource depletion. In this consideration, owners of other types of technologies may want to prevent the deployment of newer technology.

There is strong social and political resistance to shale gas extraction technologies, as seen in France and Bulgaria that have bans on the technology. The recent report on the legal framework  in Member States highlights the nascent industry of shale gas in Europe. With only Poland moving ahead strongly, but currently with very small production levels. The report demonstrates that there is scope for improving environmental and public review of shale gas projects (despite media reports that currently not much needs to be done).

The supporters or geopolitical energy realist, may have been caught off-guard and the quick introduction of shale gas bans. But there is now public and private push back against these bans, and no doubt there will be a reconsideration of the role that shale gas (and oil) play in national energy strategies. In France it is possible there will be a re-examination. In Bulgaria a group of energy experts see the current energy policy short sighted, with shale gas as a potential booster to the country’s energy security issues – with now almost total dependency on Russian gas. Just as Poland sees the drive for greater energy security lying in shale gas, so may Bulgaria.

Lock-in or lock-out of gas technologies?

Improvement through the technological process of fracking and shifts in state institutions, through greater environmental reviews and a broader understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of shale gas technologies all influence deployment. As the technology of fracking improves, the industry becomes more knowledgeable about the local geology and political/public landscape, and as state institutions introduce regulatory safeguards – responding to public concerns, shale technology will become more widely deployed. Mitigation of the more obvious regulatory and environmental risks emerge from addressing the technological and institutional risks.

This debate and discussion is set on the background of the geopolitical landscape of energy independence. Technological advances are not only for solar and wind power, the dominant position the fossil fuel industry and its ability to innovate and evolve, reflecting market and political-social realities, this should not be underestimated. The future energy mix – realistically, continues to rely on fossil fuels, resource depletion is the end-game, but improved innovation and technology will ensure it continues to compete and (hopefully) contributes to a cleaner and low-carbon energy future.

 

Citations:

Unruh, Gregory C., 2000. Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 28 (12),
817–830.
Unruh, Gregory C., 2002. Escaping carbon lock-in. Energy Policy 30 (4), 317–325

I have to thank the Atlantic Council’s Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) online group for some of the articles cited here – and also a source of inspiration for exploring this topic more.

 

 

Shale gas, not bound by traditional risk assessments? Part I

Separating the game changing analysis of shale gas from hype and connecting it with reality is an important task. Providing an effective analysis of shale gas requires separating between the different elements of the industry. Just as the study of oil has multiple dimensions with a mature analysis ‘industry,’ shale gas has suffered from the element of news media hype and an over reliance on the geological and technical analysis of extraction and incubation of the industry.  This focus fails to provide both a short-term and long-term perspective that assesses traditional risks existing in the energy industry.

Traditional risk analysis demonstrates shale gas is just like you and me – not a superstar Hollywood actor. The debate around shale gas as a ‘game changer’ needs to give way – including in the media – to a new level of analysis that sees the industry as bound by traditional political-economic risks. The recent report produced for the European Commission on the legal frameworks that surround unconventional ‘shale’ gas demonstrates how the laws of gravity apply to this ‘new’ technology.

The study examines the legal and regulatory framework in four EU Member States: Poland, France, Germany and Sweden. The report provides a good overview of the legal environment, and the licensing procedures, including public involvement and how environmental concerns and impact of the technology are addressed.

What emerges is a barenaked industry, with limited drilled wells and companies operating in constrained regulatory and legal framework. No doubt improvements could be made to the permitting process and procedures streamlined or public involvement increased, but the industry is not breaking down the steal door to become the disruptor of the gas sector. There are too many traditional risks blocking a clear path to a broad use of the technology.

A risk typology can be produced that demonstrates just how down to earth shale gas is. Drawing from two categories of risks that I put together for an article on the transition towards a low carbon economy by 2050, the risks emerge as applicable to the new industry.  If we take the identified risks, and just list a few anecdotal events then we can see the constraints.

Contractual risks

  1. Fuel price risk: price variability and uncertainty over future costs; e.g. comparison between Russian pipeline gas and shale gas.
  2. Demand risk: gas produced will not be needed as projected; e.g. impact of renewables, LNG and pipelines (and energy efficiency?).
  3. Performance risk: wells do not produce as predicted to satisfy contractual obligations.
  4. Environmental compliance riskThe financial risk to which parties to an energy contract are exposed, stemming from both existing environmental regulations and uncertainty over possible future regulations; e.g. this is the most popularized risk at the moment, France and Bulgaria demonstrate that public opinion can lead to blocking the use of shale gas technology.

Regime risks

  1. Financial risk: no or limited amount of money available. This does not seem too applicable at the moment.
  2. Regulatory risk:  The risk that future laws, regulations, regulatory reviews or renegotiation of contracts will alter the benefits or burdens of contracts for either party; e.g. this is real and tightly connected with environmental risks.
  3. Technological lock-inPerpetuation of a dominant design that is inferior to newer technology. Industries that have a significant systemic-technological relationship are most susceptible, due to buffered market forces. This may be more applicable in Russia where shale technology is not being deployed. But the use of ‘traditional’ conventional technologies may be encouraged to be used first before unconventional technologies are deployed; e.g. the ban in France and Bulgaria will continue the use of established technologies.
  4. Institutional lock-inTo reduce uncertainty and to provide continuity to past investors regulatory institutions may change only incrementally, thereby relying on older technologies and inhibiting newer technologies. This may not occur like this, but avoidance of unconventional technology by regulators may lock a country into older technologies, that over time, if traditional gas fields faulter, won’t work as well.
  5. Administrative capacity risk: Constrained staffing levels in government institutions prevent a larger policy and regulatory response. This may occur, as demonstrated in the EC report, if laws and regulations and the agencies that implement these, are not made more flexible or given the tools to properly account for the special characteristics of the shale gas industry.
  6. Investment risk:  Investments are impacted due to uncertainty in the operational environment; e.g. the differenence can be seen between different countries like Bulgaria and Poland, where one country is not moving ahead and the other is. At the moment, it seems like there are willing investors and uncertainty in any country (only legal blockades) are preventing greater investment.

Geopolitical risks: relations with third countries. This is a separate category that needs a full analysis of how Russia is and will react to greater use of unconventional gas technology in Europe.

The categories listed here provide a rough guide to examine the types of risks that have emerged to stop greater investment and what risks may emerge more forcefully in the future. No doubt environmental compliance risks, administrative capacity risk and geopolitical risks emerge as key areas that the industry must focus on. These are divergent risks and take different strategies to overcome or to mitigate. But effectively addressing these becomes important to the growth or decline of the small industry in Europe.

Nabucco’s bubble bursts

Death is now amongst us. Stalking the Nabucco partners… watching as they each pull away. RWE is prefering to get away from the corpse. Death was not the result of a lack of gas, lack of finance or lack of political will: death came from reality. The broader social-political and economic reality that security of supply is not worth $10 billion.

Nabucco rose on the 2009 gas crisis between Russia and the Ukraine – the only viable long term option to for Southeast and Central Europe to diversity away from Russia. The timing was right for the plans and the consortium, the shutting off of gas and the impact it had on countries largely reliant on Russian gas spurred a great impetus to diversify.

Nabucco’s bubble grew with the momentum built on the concept of security of supply for Europe. For companies and governments who supported the project, their commitment and involvement meant that the momentum needed to be maintained. The competition against the Russian backed South Stream, meant there was a race occurring and neither Nabucco’s supporting companies or governments could be seen as folding to the demands – or in the face of Russia’s demands. The hot air continued to be pumped into the bubble as the company executives and politicians spoke.

But now it is done. The decision is made – now the companies and governments have to think of how to exit. I know the feeling. On this topic, I’ve had writer’s block for three months. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. In a previous post, I tried to make sense of it- tried exploring in my writing what was going on. But I just ended up with a feeble post. My friend at Natural Gas for Europe asked for something. I couldn’t deliver, was my explanation…. maybe if I had known my feelings more, I would have known I was watching my prized project – the one I invested so many hours analyzing, die. Like a football fan watching his winning team go down to an inferior team, the impossibility of it all means the mind can’t process the events. Nabucco is dead.

The popping of Nabucco’s bubble was not done in dramatic fashion. Death did not come from the lack of finance, lack of supply or lack of political support. Each of these factors other analysts have claimed would be the reason for Nabucco not to be built. I always argued otherwise; my reasoning was based on the trued concept of Earth, Wind and Fire. Man’s desire for the Earth’s mineral riches is too great, so geology (Earth), finance (Wind) or politics (Fire) could not stand in the way. My argument rested on the nonsensical argument that gas can be created, money spent with flimsy conditions and politicians can all get along. And this is all still true – Man (and I am being sexists in my use of the term) can make anything stupid happen.

The death of Nabucco was caused by a ‘holy shit moment.’ We all have these. Doubts stir, finally they emerge, not just in strong terms, but through clarity. The shift of US support in November 2011 to commercially viable projects that delivers gas to the CEE/SEE region marked an important point. While the other smaller pipeline projects were getting attention and it was ‘out there’ that these could become viable, it was all noise. (That’s all I could hear for the past few months – noise.) But now with the reduction of support from RWE, and the broader shift in the economic conditions in Europe and the world, air is seeping from Nabucco’s bubble. People and companies are ready to buckle down and see how the next few years go.  The importance of security of supply is now reduced. We are all back to comfort foods.

Death did not come about by alternative gas sourcing either. Shale gas did not kill Nabucco. Just as Nabucco went through a three year bubble of irrational discourse, so too is shale gas.  Pipelines did not kill Nabucco. There are two proposed smaller pipelines that would see the Turkish system beefed up, the Turkish and Azerbaijan TANAP project, and now the strong contender, South East Europe Pipeline project, each delivers less gas for lower cost to Europe – and from available reserves in the region. While these now appear to be commercially viable – it was never realistic that Nabucco could compete – or be built – with small capacity and a short term time horizon for payback. Nabucco was a large long-term project that was on the point of visionary –  smaller does not win in the long-term. And so Europe will not either from Nabucco’s demise. Political rationality helped kill Nabucco. The apparent rapprochement, or entrapment –  between the Ukraine, EU and Russia over the Ukrainian transit system, means that reality has also returned to the most financially viable method of transferring Russian and Central Asian gas to Europe. (Can the Ukraine afford to have South Stream built?) In an age of comfort food and ‘STOP – what’s rational?,’ then the continued use of the Ukraine for transit is also smart.

The public death of Nabucco will continue for sometime now. It won’t be fast. But for me, Nabucco is dead. South Stream, will be analyzed in a later post, but what killed Nabucco can also kill South Stream. They are the same creature. But just as one is at a loss after a death, I’ll have to search for a new way to perceive the EU- Russia gas relationship. Pipelines are so 2010’s; now we all have to understand and reconceptualize what the new energy relationship is between the EU and Russia – now the fun begins again.