Tag Archives: Gazprom

Putin-Orban Politburo Meeting: Cash and energy co-dependency

The global fall in oil prices and the shaking foundation of Russia’s economy has analysts and the media questioning Russia’s commitment to financing and  building Hungary’s expanded Paks II nuclear plant. On February 17, Hungary’s Prime Minister will be in Moscow for a meeting with Putin – almost a year to the date Putin visited Hungary. Top of the agenda is energy. In this short analysis, I’ll simply be stating the importance of energy projects and the historical commitment both Russia and Hungary hold to supply side economics of energy resources. Their common energy policy is: Immediate cash is more important than long-term energy reduction methods. This is in contrast to more advanced countries which are moving to tackle demand side inefficiencies and rolling out low cost distributed generation technologies.

The autocratic habits of Putin and Orban make them susceptible to stick with supply side economics. Pushing out natural resources and producing more and more energy to grow an economy is straight from the Politburo playbook. Or more accurately, Gosplan’s book.

To frame my discussion on supply side history of energy resources let’s go back to the 1980s, when the Soviet Union’s organization of Gosplan set the five-year plans. And let’s frame this discussion within the general economic difficulties the Soviet Union found itself in the 1980s. Energy investments were planned to increase 50% between 1981 and 1985. More broadly, this “implied that energy was to absorb fully two-thirds of all new Soviet investment during the coming five-year plan…. [With] the share of energy in the planned increment of industrial investment came to a whopping 85.6 percent.” This means, almost all of the money meant to build the Soviet economy was going towards energy projects. Much of this was down to the increasing costs of extraction and expanding the energy network from Siberia (Gustafeson 1989, 36). We can also insert gas pipelines to Eastern and Western Europe. In short, the energy sector was the primary recipient of financial resources for the Soviet Union. The sector held both domestic and foreign political-economic dimensions.

Just to bring us back to the era of Soviet energy policy and the Politburo

Wrapped in the Soviet energy strategy was rolling out nuclear reactors across the Eastern bloc. Hungary was a recipient of this push with the building of Paks in the 1970 and early 1980s. But Hungary pursued Paks only after it became clear that oil was going to be very expensive over the long term for producing electricity. Paks II represents the continued economic investment abroad for political-economic influence, and this supply side ideology.

There was a moment of rationality, by 1983, Gorbachev recognized the need to re-orientate, at a significant scale, capital onto energy conservation measures. Nonetheless, by 1985, global oil prices plummeted along with the dollars fall against other currencies. Oil profits were wiped out in the Soviet Union (Gustafeson 1989, 36, 46 -48).

It is important to pause here, I’m spending time on this, as it reflects our world today – in 2016, low oil prices and external conflicts (even down the the Syria/Afghanistan comparison).  The push for conservation was a watered down for the five-year plan starting in 1985, investment into energy supply would continue at a high pace – the money was needed, while energy conservation was given lip-service (Gustafeson 1989, 36, 46 -48).

An energy conservationist?

Russia is built on an export hand-to-mouth energy system. Political influence and immediate cash needs supersede long-term planning for efficiency and effectiveness of energy resources. Putin is lucky to find a friend like Hungary’s Orban who also understands the benefits of supply side energy for political and economic purposes. Cash generated from consumers helps to finance government expenses.

Hungary holds no ambition to reduce its raw energy needs. The solution of the Orban government since 2010 is to take money from foreign and domestic energy companies to reduce household’s energy bills by 25 percent. I’ve outlined how unsustainable this is before. The drop in oil and gas prices over the past few months, has seen households in Bulgaria pay less for their gas, but the same has not happened to Hungarian households. Essentially, either the financial losses in the system are being paid off, or the money goes into the ether.

Under the Orban government, over the long-term, Hungarian households are no better off than the foreign energy companies. The dramatic reduction in investments into the energy sector means fixing things as they break will cost more money. In addition, there is almost no money to invest into energy efficiency. If a large number of Hungarian households have trouble paying their energy bills – and this is the rational used for nationalization and reducing bills 25 percent – then they don’t have money to invest in energy efficiency which will reduce their bills more than 25 percent. Thus over the long term, Hungarian households will  pay more for an energy system with spot repairs and for leaky windows and walls.

Demonstrating the common perception in Hungary of corruption at the highest levels, the government is reallocating EU funds of HUF 309 billion meant for energy efficiency measures in 50,000 homes. The money will now be used only in public buildings. In my opinion this is an attempt to satisfy the EU’s energy efficiency directive. This stipulates that governments must renovate three percent of the buildings they own per year. Just like other large scale projects in Hungary (notably LED street lighting by Orban’s son-in-law), these government controlled projects are susceptible to corrupt tendering practices. Or in the eyes of the government, they can meet the EU energy efficiency directive while also channeling money to selected companies. They also do not need to finance this three percent goal from the state budget.

Just like the government of the Soviet Union, both Russia and Hungary place supply side energy economics ahead of demand side efficiency measures. Even if these measures cripple and stunt the economic growth of each country. Supply side measures are only short term building projects pumping out more and more natural and financial resources. Only the companies and individuals vested into building the infrastructure and selling energy resources make money. The financial resources of households are degraded over the long term because they must pay more for emergency repairs and inefficient homes.

Hungarian gas bills represent a simple wealth transfer to Gazprom and both the Russian and Hungarian governments: Twenty-percent of every gas bills goes to pay Hungarian VAT (this is higher than in 2008 – and even higher than Norway’s VAT), around 70% of householders bill payments go to the (mostly) Russian entities that sell the gas, including Gazprom Export. Thus, Hungarian households do a wealth transfer to Russia and to Hungarian government approved entities involved in the gas business. Only a small percentage of the bill actually covers the network costs – which the government waged the war against foreign utilities over. The increase in corruption in Hungary and the endemic corruption levels in Russia means Hungarian households are forced to pay for energy services that may also be involved in corruption. The costly expansion of Paks II, also fits into this narrative. If investments into energy efficiency (both electricity and gas) were carried out households could reduce this wealth transfer to Russia and the Hungarian government.

Source: European Commission, 'Energy prices and costs in Europe' 2014, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe
Source: European Commission, ‘Energy prices and costs in Europe’ 2014, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe

The original push for energy conservation by Gorbachev in the mid-1980’s was also a push for increase resources to benefit consumer goods and the lifestyles of Soviet citizens.  In the end, the financial resources went into expanding the energy sector to underpin an inefficient industrial sector. Immediate cash was the main concern. This is the same concern that underpins the operations of Hungary and Russia – thus they maintain a supply side energy system with high taxes. It would be useful if Putin and Orban spoke together about improving the lives of their citizens through energy efficiency efforts – and not expanding the profits of Gazprom and intermediaries involved in the gas business or large government projects meant expand energy production (Paks) or steering energy efficiency contracts to approved companies.  Hungarian household should not subsidize the supply side energy interests in Russia and Hungary. It would also help if Putin and Orban stopped acting like members of the Politburo in 1985.

Additional sources:

European Commission. “Energy Prices and Costs in Europe,” 2014. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe.
Gustafson, Thane. Crisis amid Plenty: The Politics of Soviet Energy under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. A Rand Corporation Research Study. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Russia and Mackinder’s reach into CEE Gas Markets

The Magyar came next, and by incessant raiding from his steppe base in Hungary increased the significance of the Austrian outpost, so drawing the political focus of Germany eastward to the margin of the realm.

H.J.Mackinder 1904

Projecting Power from the Gas Heartland
What provides the best strategic advantage: Mobility upon the ocean or mobility across the stepped lands of Eurasia? The question was examined by Joseph MacKinder in 1904 before the calamities of the 20th century. Applying MacKinder’s treaties to Europe’s energy landscape of today provides important insights into sphere’s of influence. Today, we can draw on MacKinder and apply the sea vs. land argument for control and influence in Central and Southeast Europe.

In this post I will update a single key underpinnings of Mackinder’s consideration of spheres of influence, drawing from the concept of controlling the resources of the Euroasian landmass (Russia) compared to European counties with access (and control) of the seas. I do not address the historical role and influence of Mackinder’s writings. Reflecting on MacKinder is important because it serves as an important vehicle to understand current debates around Russia’s involvement in Central and Southeast Europe. By updating and re-positioning gas within Mackinder’s framework an assessment of the position of countries between Russia and Western European countries demonstrates important political and economic considerations in the price of gas. In this analysis I’m largely referring to EU member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.

Historical Reflection

Thus marginal ocean-fed commerce… form[s] a zone of penetration round the continents, whose inner limit is roughly marked by the line along which the cost of four handlings, the oceanic freight, and the railway freight from the neighbouring coast, is equivalent to the cost of two handlings and the continental railway freight.

–H.J.Mackinder 1904

If we update this cost of handling – not freight – but natural resources, such as natural gas, oil and even nuclear fuelrods, we begin to see that the past price of freight is still relevant for our discussion. The zone of penetration of ocean freight benefits those countries in Western Europe. While the countries in Central Eastern Europe receive lower priced gas piped across the continent from Russia. While countries in Northern Europe benefit from the piped gas from the North Sea – acting as a ‘land’ source for their energy needs – however, bringing that same gas to much of Central Eastern Europe is constrained by continental infrastructure and increased cost competition for network access in mainland Europe.

Price Differences

The price differentials are first evident in the border prices for networked gas between markets. Hungary’s estimated Russian border price for gas imports for June – August 2014 are at 22.18 Euro/MWh, while the better interconnected network of Germany has a hub price of 18.33 Euro/MWh. While Bulgaria shells out 28.12 Euro/MWh for almost total reliance on Russian gas.

Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 26
Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 26

LNG is the seabased routing of natural resources. LNG cannot compete against European and Russian sourced gas for Central Eastern Europe. And here I’ll keep my analysis at a pan-European level to demonstrate even with liquid Western European markets, Russia hold significant competitive advantage. In a direct comparison against global gas prices, Russian gas prices historically come out competitive. In the chart below, the main lines to observe are the Europe Oil Indexed Contracts [after concessions (BAFA)] these include Russian contracted gas, NBP which is a basket of gas prices (including Norwegian gas). Even US exported gas, represented by the Henry Hub price, needs to be doubled for US LNG export.

Source: “Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.] pg 31
Source: “Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.] pg 31
The regional price for cooperative regimes, we see that deals can be struck. In February 2015, on a to Hungary Putin gave the cooperative Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban a discount for his friendly attitude towards Russia. In renegotiating a gas import contract Budapest achieved a price of $260 tcm (thousand cubic meters) as compared to a European average of $270 tcm. Similar price adjustments, reflecting changes in international gas and oil prices, were also achieved for Austria earlier in 2015 and Bulgaria in 2012. The takeaway is Russia is competitive and willing to adjust to international shifts in gas and oil prices.

Adjusting wholesale gas prices is essential for influencing the political landscape in Central Europe. Household gas prices are politically important in the region. I discussed above the competitive wholesale market prices in Europe, but divergence is strongly apparent at the household level. Politically, this is where results are achieved for politicians.

The map below shows the price difference for households. Ultimately, as discussed elsewhere on this blog and in other writings by myself, it is the consumer price that helps direct political control and strategy in the energy sector. In the pricing map we have a clear division between those countries reliant on Russian piped gas for consumer prices and those reliant on sea based sources – even underwater pipelines from the North Sea and from Russia (Nord Stream).

Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 30
Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 30

When we draw in this information, and the map (above) represents a clear division between how energy markets and geopolitical influence can be exerted. The household price of gas is significantly different in Central Eastern Europe and proportionally lower than the wholesale price difference. In this ‘flash’ analysis I won’t average out the household price difference between the two regions, but eyeballing it there is a clear difference – particularly if the information on the higher wholesale price, European averaged gas price are contrasted with the lower household price. In my opinion there is a significant story of why these price differences exist.

Nonetheless, for our discussion here this gets to the heart of our MacKinder hypothesis. That control of the heartland – the pivot region (Euroasia), the “vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessable to ships… and is to-today about to be covered with a network of railways….[with conditions of] mobility of military and economic power…” lends itself to a comparison of gas pipelines, LNG, market structures and geopolitical influence. Events in Ukraine underscore the military might, while differential in household gas pricing underscore the economic might of today’s Russia.

Objections

Objections to both a MacKinder view and regional pricing differential views, I believe would have two points. First, they would say that the underdeveloped interconnector network lends itself to isolated markets. A Gazprom position, is that Central European isolated markets consume less gas and therefore are more costly to service, price adjustments just represent market trends. Second, both the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine of Russia actually weakens the application of MacKinder and the Pivot region. My response to both of these arguments is that if gas prices are non-political then household gas prices would reflect the wholesale market price. However, the dramatic difference between EU household prices indicates elements of political and manipulated economic interests.

Conclusion

Pricing differences between EU member states falls along an important geopolitical fault line. Control of the Eurasian continental heartland and the natural resources, delivered via pipeline, provides a competitive pricing advantage over LNG and even delivery from more volatile regions like North Africa or from politically contentious and higher priced technologies like hydraulic fracturing. Continued reliance and even promotion of options to increase Russian gas into the SEE and CEE regions underscore the political importance Russia holds in securing and dominating these gas markets. As long as household energy prices are a dominant political issue, Russia will continue to hold sway in the regions’ energy markets by projecting its power through political leverage.

Key Sources:
Mackinder, H. J. “The Geographical Pivot of History (1904).” Geographical Journal 170, no. 4 (December 2004): 298–321. doi:10.1111/j.0016-7398.2004.00132.x.

Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy. Quarterly Report on European Gas Markets. European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy, 2014. [https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf.]

“Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.]

The Day Hungary Cleaved from Europe: The true cost of Russian gas

The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest on February 17th, 2015 marks the day the Hungarian government voluntarily returned to the Russian sphere.

The outcome is three-fold: First, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly rejected the EU path of energy market transparency and integration. Second, Hungary accepted ‘cheap’ Russian gas in exchange for a Ukraine-like gas arrangements which depend on Orban’s political fortunes at home. Third, Hungary operates its gas network for the benefit Russian geopolitical aims.  This arrangement threatens both Europe’s  and Hungary’s drive for energy independence, system stability, and European energy security underpinned by interconnection between countries.

A great friendship

The Cost of Cheap Gas

The Hungarian movement into Russia’s embrace was done in the name of ‘cheap’ gas. Reportedly, the price dropped from the oil-indexed price of $440 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) to $260 tcm, against a European gas-on-gas average price of $270 tcm. Bingo! Nonetheless, the drop is significant when you consider this post listing previous 2013 prices in the EU (before our recent oil and gas price decline). Importantly, the deal renegotiated Hungary’s previous long-term contract with Gazprom enabling it to utilize its previous unused gas on the take-or-pay scheme. Although, this supply extension (from a trusted source I’m told) was already agreed to back in 2008 when E.ON owned the import rights. Thus in short, Hungary received very little from Russia for all the political and economic favoritism listed below.

But first let’s put these numbers into a regional perspective. The new price is based on non-oil based pricing, thus hub price. Bulgaria, for example in 2012, renegotiated its long-term contract between Bulgargaz and Gazprom increasing the gas hub based pricing to 20% from 10% previously.  While OMV in January of this year, shifted to hub based pricing with Gazprom. Thus Hungary simply follows on this regional shift that began in 2008 and gets a somewhat lower price for being a good customer.

This temporary arrangement, rather than going with a new long-term contract, was done under the reasoning that current volatile gas and oil prices means Hungary may see further price drops in the future (er, or Russia might increase the price?). It is also enough time for Hungary and Russia lay plans for a gas link to Turkey. Importantly, for this article, election years in Hungary may occur in 2018 and 2022. Any change in government after 2018 will need to deal with the Russians at that point. Cooperation on gas and nuclear will need to continue.

Nonetheless, let’s not think in terms of only open market pricing – which Gazprom is not noted for. Particularly, when Putin shows up on your door. Rather let’s consider that Hungary’s European Union membership was openly sold for gas necessary to prop up artificial utility price cuts and for a trip wire gas deal – any shift in the governing party will result in more expensive gas. Cheap gas and political trip wires are key reasons for the past political instability in Ukraine, in other measures Orban is also shifting Hungary to the Ukrainian gas model.

The overall actions of the Hungarian government during Putin’s visit demonstrate Hungarian historical values are neither respected nor honored. Rather, shameful Hungarian historical political tendencies bared themselves by Putin and Orban’s negation of the living memories of Hungarians break from the Soviet sphere in 1956 and 1989.  But Hungarian society, the one that I know, is waking up. The Hungarian people reacted to Orban’s governing style, and no doubt Putin’s visit, by taking away his two-thirds majority in Parliament in a local by-election this week, February 23rd.  There is no social return to Russia’s barracks.

The Hungarian populace is firmly in the EU. In contrast Orban openly embraces Russia in the pursuit of cheap energy sources, in the form of gas shipments and new nuclear power plant agreement. This pursuit belies a more efficient scenario where Hungary’s EU membership serves as a basis for a more secure  and interconnected system that provides sustainable priced electricity and gas. EU presence in negotiations can also boost Hungarian gas deals. Following the EU path both honors Hungary’s European membership and advances national and EU energy independence.

Political reasons are behind Orban’s friendship with Putin. Hungary has cut electricity and gas prices more than 25% since 2012. During the 2014 local elections advertisements existed across the country proclaiming the energy price cuts; in 2013 there was an open government funded PR war against foreign owned utilities – even a petition drive! The price cuts, while good for households in the short term, have significant impacts on the energy system.

These prices are resulting in private gas and electricity companies hemorrhaging cash for residential customers. Eni, the Italian gas and oil company Hungarian gas subsidiary, TIGAZ, is accumulating financial debts nearing its capitalization.  The Hungarian government is racing to set up its own for profit service provider in 2015 (although they say it is non-profit, it is registered as for-profit). This is necessary to take over the universal consumer obligation. The private distribution companies, owned by ENI, RWE, E.ON do not need to file again to be universal service providers to supply electricity and gas at a loss on the regulated market to households. Nonetheless, to be fair to the Hungarian government, these and other companies did have years to foster a competitive market for households and they never did. The question though is how to foster a  fair market price without bankrupting companies.

The losses on the regulated market can be taken over by the Hungarian state, which has conveniently placed the ‘non-profit’ entity in the Hungarian Development Bank. However, the placement of many energy entities – such as a gas trading entity, into the bank raises red flags.  The potential exists for capital injections into the bank, by the government  to result in cross-subsidized losses. The bank incurs losses, through its ownership of the service provider, but the government makes up for these losses by capital infusions into the bank. However, under the gas agreement the current 25% cut likely be maintained without losses, thus Putin delivered Orban a golden egg – with Putin keeping the goose.

(In the past few months I have submitted questions on this topic to the Hungarian government and state owned companies but my requests for interviews were all declined. The Hungarian energy regulator did speak to me about the technical reasons for cutting gas off to Ukraine in September 2014 – a contract from Naftogaz was never returned).

The Hungarian energy system now operates under the same politically driven concerns as the bankrupt Bulgarian energy system. As a starter, under Orban and the Fidesz super majority in Parliament, the operating profits of the Hungarian utility sector as a whole flipped from a profit of HUF 224 billion in 2009 to HUF 119 billion loss in 2012.   Bulgaria is at least attempting to dig itself out of these past practices, which has placed the Bulgarian state owned energy company, NEK in debt of €767 million in the past four years. (well, it now recognizes these losses, so maybe it will act). Hungary is just lowering the ladder to go down this hole.^ Orban is right, he does need Russian gas to have cheap energy for consumers. The significant losses by utilities and the re-organization of the Hungarian energy market demonstrates this.[For more on information on the similarities of Hungarian and Bulgarian energy systems see this (draft) co-authored article].

Putin’s Pipelines

Driving further dependence on Russia is Hungary’s reduction of interconnector capacity between Hungary – Austria (HAG), and Hungary – Slovakia. The HAG has 3 bcm, but Hungarian state owned MVM holds a monopoly on the capacity granted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011 citing energy supply security as justification. Capacity is extremely limited and widespread media coverage given to a partially Russian owned firm, MET, holding a special arrangement with MVM on importing and reselling gas into Hungary through HAG. The other owners are reported in the Hungarian media as being politically connected in Hungary.

The story of the Hungarian-Slovak interconnector is short. Meant to open in January 2015, ‘technical reasons’ keep this 5 BCM pipe closed. In addition,  operating rules are delayed while they are being modified. The importance of the SK-HU pipeline is viewed by the fact that German Chancellor Merkel in her February visit with Orban, brought up the use of this interconnector by RWE. As is clear, Putin has Orban’s ear, not Merkel. It remains unknown when this pipe will open.

Constraining Hungarian import and export capacity also constrains volume and price liquidity on the Hungarian market. This would erode MVM’s and Gazprom’s lock on the Hungarian gas market and even allow export to Ukraine. Evidence of this can already be seen in the relatively huge profits booked by MET through its deal with MVM shipping gas from Austria. In 2010, MET had HUF 44 billion revenue in 2010, by 2012, the company had  HUF 280 billion in revenue and “paid 60 billion in dividends to its owners, 2.5 times more than the overall dividends paid by the whole group of foreign incumbents in the same year.”* Or as mentioned above, the utility sector as a whole experienced a  HUF 119 billion loss in 2012. Other market players receive no such treatment, instead they are burdened by both special sectoral taxes and regulated utility rates. The losses in Hungary may only be comparable to Bulgaria – not a model energy system, plagued by riots and constant court battles between utilities and governments.

In terms of the SK-HU interconnector, RWE would benefit by both exporting to Ukraine and servicing Hungary’s industrial sector, which are stuck with Russian gas. In addition, Orban promised Putin not to re-export Russian gas to Ukraine, further restricting gas that could flow to Ukraine.

Market liquidity enables Hungarian industry to build managed gas portfolios enabling them to leverage a variety of gas trading mechanisms to hedge and play with market pricing. These should be done on a liquid Hungarian gas exchange which is operated by MVM’s CEEGEX. Instead, western European gas is limited in Hungary.

Under current rules, Hungary operates a ‘free trade zone’ for gas in its state owned gas storage facilities. Gas traded between entities is confidentially reported to the Hungarian energy regulator.  No tax is paid until withdrawal happens. Thus, Gazprom is able to ship gas to Hungary, the gas can be traded multiple times, and only once it is withdrawn from storage does the price become known. Non-transparency is a friend of Gazprom. Just as huge profits are booked from imports from Austria by the selected MET, who buys and trades with MVM, the stored gas remains opaque. Bi-lateral contracts while legal, should be pushed towards the exchange. Hungary already has CEEGEX  where all free-trade zone gas should be openly traded and would serve Hungary and the region well. Orban has a vision to develop Hungary as a gas trading hub. Restricting imports and exports reduces Hungary’s regional potential.

The necessity to increase Russia’s gas storage in Hungary was prevalent last fall when Hungary needed Gazprom to store gas in Hungary  because it did not purchase enough over the summer months. After Hungary purchased the storage company from E.ON in 2013, the new owners in their first year were waiting for market participants to fill up the storage. With the Hungarian energy system already running a huge deficit, and the Hungarian government slapping taxes on everything from coffee beans to maintaining its 27% VAT,  the country is hard pressed to pay for gas.

One of the key outcomes of the recent Putin-Orban deal was Hungary now only pays for stored Russian gas once it is used. This means Hungary does not need to pay for gas sitting unused in its storage facilities. Security of its gas supply is now handled by the Russians. This is important, as was the case this past year, where Hungary had expensive Russian gas sitting in its storage while the hub price next door in Austria was significantly lower. This may be one reason, the HAG interconnector has a stuffy nose.

This agreement for storage between Putin and Orban also validates my previous argument explaining why Hungary stopped gas shipments to Ukraine and was not able to fill-up its storage during summer. By September 2014, it was clear the Hungarian government needed Moscow’s help. Thus the gas storage deal was struck in September and shipments to Ukraine blocked to make way for the deluge of Russian gas into the Hungarian gas system – or so the official explanation goes. (Coincidentally shipments stopped after Orban met with Gazprom CEU Alexei Miller in September 2014, previously I gave Orban the benefit of the doubt, no longer).

The agreement over flexible storage amounts and timing of payments is also reminiscent of Ukrainian dependency on Russian gas. In the past, Ukraine’s inability to pay for gas placed it under the thumb of Moscow. When Ukrainian political leadership changed, it also meant a significant price increase  for the European friendly government. The new flexible agreement with Putin and Orban further opens the way for any post-Orban political era – which the Hungarian people are beginning to contemplate. Future gas negotiations will need to occur in 2019-2020, time enough to check in on Hungary to see how well Paks is progressing (the start of construction), gas price shifts, Hungary’s stance on EU energy integration, and after the 2018 elections.

The impact that Orban’s embrace of Russia is already apparent. Neighboring Slovakia is planning EuStream which seeks to build an interconnector with Romania and routing the gas via Bulgaria to the Southeast market. This avoidance of Hungary goes against Hungary’s historical attempts to unify both the CEE and SEE region into a tightly integrated gas market. In 2007, Hungary’s MOL took the initiative in its New European Transmission System (NETS) to lead the way. I personally sat in one of the first meetings and it was clear while MOL was taking the lead, it was political resistance in the other countries that held back the concept.  Now we see Hungary attempting to maintain its political control and influence over the region, with neighboring states planning to avoid Hungary.

The pipelines leading into Hungary from Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine, under current operations, should be viewed as strongly influenced from the strong friendship that exists between Orban and Putin. It is apparent from many of Orban’s public statements that he views Hungary being under the tutelage of Russia. Despite calls that Hungary’s energy sovereignty must be protected at all costs. The cost is a battle with the EU over Hungary’s low energy prices, not with Russian energy dependency.

Quixotically, the result is reliance on Russian gas and nuclear technology. The definition of ‘sovereignty’ in recent history holds its place in the last great international relations era when the Soviet Union existed. Thus for this argument of energy sovereignty to even make sense, it must be defined as energy dependence with political and economic sovereignty at home. Unfortunately, if we look at Ukraine, not only have they lost territorial sovereignty, political sovereignty was violated when Russia increased their gas price as retribution for being EU leaning.

When Orban speaks of sovereignty he speaks of his own political sovereignty – retribution will come for new political leadership not aligned to Russia. Putin’s pipeline’s are no longer just transit pipelines.  Hungary maintains energy security restrictions on the HAG, flips on and off the tap to Ukraine, and has technical difficulties with getting its interconnector up and running with Slovakia. All these align with Russia’s aim of restricting regional gas flows. In the past I have usually given Hungarian authorities the benefit of the doubt on these technical matters. Sometimes, it is good to question authority.

The Message: Orban left Europe

The stern and cold messages sent by both Chancellor Merkel (before Putin’s visit), who didn’t know what to make of Orban’s admiration of ‘illiberal democracy’, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz who held, “honest and difficult talks” with Orban (after Putin’s visit), Slovakia routing neighboring pipelines around Hungary, Romania’s intelligence chief considers Hungary untrustworthy, and Ukraine invites the regional heads of state for a commemoration, but not Hungarian, these all send a clear message: Orban cleaved Hungary from Europe.

The European project founded on energy security and dependency is firmly rejected by the current Hungarian government. All European energy systems are nationally focused, but only those systems most open to corruption and voter manipulation, like the case of Bulgaria or Ukraine, firmly reject integration, transparency, and cooperation with neighboring countries. The European energy system pushes market transparency and integration in the pursuit of prices that sustain and develop the energy system.

In contrast, secret middle of the night nuclear deals, opaque financing of energy utilities, state controlled pricing, coincidental limitations on imported gas,  all underpinned by a hotline friendship – with a leader of a country that formerly occupied your own country, and  just invaded your neighbor, but who gave you some ‘cheap’ gas, to help your politically controlled energy system, reads like a Russian novel, with things never ending well for the main characters.

On top of our Russian novel,  none of Orban’s actions can be labelled as energy sovereignty. Rather, as we can see from Ukraine, energy dependency creates political instability, under investment in the energy system, corruption and the maintenance of a political distance from Europe. Stepping out of Russia’s line results in swift reprisals.

February 17th, 2015, Orban was the lone man out in Europe for opening Hungary to Putin.  The pursuit of cheap gas, the rejection of Europe’s new Energy Union and embrace of a former occupier signals Hungary’s political, economic and energy dependence on Russia. This new relation is dependent on Hungary’s nuclear power deal withstanding EU scrutiny, sustained ‘cheap’ Russian gas and Hungary threatening to block EU diversification efforts  through the Energy Union.  Hungary stands with the opaque political governance model of Russia, not the transparent governance model of the EU.

Nonetheless, as Hungary’s long history shows, the Hungarian people do kick the Russians out. The price Orban got for gas is already too much for most Hungarians.

————————————-

References:

^LaBelle, Michael, and Atanas Georgiev. “The Socio-Political Capture of Utilities: The Expense of Low Energy Prices in Bulgaria and Hungary.” University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, 2015.
 *Felsmann, Balazs. “Winners and Losers on the Liberalized Energy Sector in Hungary: A Co-Evolutionary Approach.” Budapest, 2014.

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!

 

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.

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.

 

Russia and the EU: Playing Russian energy roulette in Europe

From the movie Casablanca:

Rick’s Cafe – when Captain Renault decides to shut down the establishment.

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?

Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

[A casino worker gives Renault a wad of money.]

Casino Worker: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: [Quietly] Oh, thank you very much. [Loudly] Everybody out at once.

http://youtu.be/kvE-KVCbvow

Thus the anti-monopoly raids on Gazprom offices across the European Union in September 2011 appear to have set off a rocky period between Captain Renault and Rick Russia and the EU. [See my interview in the Prague Post on this issue]

The response by Russia is President Medvedev was to ask Gazprom and the Energy Ministry how to operate under the EU’s 2009 Third Energy Package. The stipulations in the Package requires, “Companies to sell or spin off their transmission businesses, require them to hand grid management over to an independent operator or oblige them to make the unit more independent through internal action.” There are two things that are odd about this. First, it is now 2011, the package was passed over 2 years ago. Did Medvedev just get to the memo from 2009 ? (and I thought I was behind on my emails) Second, there really is no need to worry about this requirement. The Germans in negotiating the package, managed to water down the unbundling requirement thus protecting their companies, and Gazprom at the same time. Some would say these were not unconnected.

‘Independence’ is a loose term. Making a company’s transmission unit “more independent through internal action,” places little demand to have a fully functioning business that makes independent decisions on network operations. The purpose of having an independent transmission company is to prompt competition by having multiple companies buying and selling gas through a network that does not discriminate between suppliers and buyers.

However, for Gazprom there is little to worry about. Even if Gazprom spins off its transmission business in the EU there is no way to ensure it is independent. If Hungary could never find out who owned RosGas that purchased Emfesz, or Surgutneftegaz that bought the MOL shares, then the continued obscure structure of Russian companies – or appointed board members that stick to the wishes of Gazprom, will result in limited independent action by a gas transmission company from Russia. Even in the US, this type of requirement is hard to police.

The true reason for the sudden rocky period, may be the additional pressure that is building on Russia for the proposed requirement that the EU Commission know the conditions for existing and new bilateratel gas agreements  between a Member State and a third country. This will see the EU insert itself into the contract negotiations between Gazprom/Russia and Member States.

If there is one thing Rick doesn’t want, it is for Captain Renault climbing into bed with him and his past lover, Yvonne.

Let's keep the EU out of our relationship

SCEE Weekly News Review

The quick turn around by the Bulgarian government to support at least one Russian/Bulgarian project was displayed fully on Saturday Nov. 13, 2010. The prime ministers of Russia and Bulgaria Vladamir Putin and Boiko Borisov sat down and agreed to establish South Stream Bulgaria AD to develop the Bulgarian section of the pipeline. Gazprom and the Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH) will be the main principles in this project. However, as reported by novinite.com in the Russian press, this means little.

“The establishment of a joint company in general does not make the destiny of real construction clearer. This would happen only when an investment decision is made, but the perspectives here are very difficult to forecast,” expert Mihail Krutin points out cited by “Nezavisimaya Gazeta.”

Of course finally getting the Borisov government to agree to a project with Russia didn’t have any impact on current Russian gas prices for Bulgaria. According to novinite.com the Bulgarian PM stated after the Russian PM left town that they would be getting lower gas prices – contradicting Putin’s assertion that these things are not connected.

And finally, according to publics.bg, the visit also produced statements that technical progress is still being made in building Belene NPP and other partners will be joining the project. At a Climate Strategies conference in Budapest this week and the 5th Energy Forum last week, it is clear that despite widespread energy industry perspectives on the future growth of nuclear power (excluding German and Austrian perspectives that were vocalized at the Climate Strategies conference), financing and ownership structures still remain key hurdles to building nuclear power. And Belene is turning out to be the poster child for the difficulty of building nuclear power.

In other Russian interest related news, the Hungarians prove again they have Surgetneftegaz pinned to the mat. According to Portfolio.hu,the Metropolitan High Court of Appeal supported the earlier ruling of a lower court that the MOL was right to bar Surget from being listed in the share registry. Outside this narrow legal ruling, this is also connected to the Hungarian Energy Office not approving participation of Surget in MOL due to it not clarifying the companies ownership structure. Well, the only joke that can come from this ruling is that even if Surgut was now listed as a full owner of MOL, the Hungarian government would no doubt come up with a special tax to apply to Surget.

And in broader EU news, and something that will need to be followed up on in separate post, Bloomberg reports that the EU Commission outlined its energy infrastructure priorities for the next two decades. But specific projects won’t be identified until 2012. So maybe I have two years to write that post.

And finally, not only did the Bulgarian visit have energy as a central focus, but it just may set off a new round of democracy in Russia. Apparently, you can now vote and suggest a name for the dog that PM Borisov gave to PM Putin.



MOL & Surgut Prediction Still Holding Water

The news was a shock…. Could I have been wrong? In an earlier post, I analyzed Hungarian and Russian wrestling moves in the area of gas. I predicted the Hungarian government wasn’t moving fast to release Surgutneftegaz from its holding in MOL. The news had Hungarian development minister,Tamas Fellegi, stating that the Hungarian government would be buying the 21.2% stake in MOL that Surgut holds.

But alas, apparently there was mixed up, and it was corrected the next day that the minister only stated that Hungary was interested in buying the stock as it would be beneficial for Hungary and Central Eastern Europe.

The news that emerged, which is interesting, Surgut’s holding in MOL are part of a larger discussion with Russia over a broad range of energy issues, according to the ministry’s corrected statement. Now this is interesting. Because a) it confirms Hungary is taking a holistic approach to its relations to Russia – in the area of energy and b) that I was right (which is important only for me). As I stated before, “Hungary can sit back and see if anything comes up they can either barter off, or raise the money to buy it outright.”

Maybe I’ve lived in Hungary for too long (which I have), but it is also clear that Hungary can gain more than just the 21.2% ownership in MOL if it decides to purchase it (apparently this can be financed by the open market). On the table for discussion is South Stream and a gas agreement for 2015. If there are other energy issues besides these, the government may also be seeking to gain some leverage. But based on these two topics, it can be seen where the Hungarians might be seeking some additional leverage. Why not make the Russians pay for more of the Hungarian portion of South Stream or gain some lower priced gas? (although this is relative in a market with current low gas demand and a post 2017 environment with South Stream/Nabucco/Krk LNG).

Overall, I’m more unclear as to how the Hungarians will be able to extract any significant, or meaningful concessions from the Russians in energy (particularly over these two mentioned areas). If the Hungarian Government wants to get away from energy dependency with Russia, a more productive path would be to limit further energy deals – not extend these. But then this is central Europe, and interdependency is important for all.

development minister Tamás Fellegi

AGRI another Gas Acronym and White Elephant for CEE

Supply diversification for securing energy is based on long term persistence. The recent agreement by Hungary to establish a project company to assess the viability of the LNG based Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romanian Interconnector (AGRI), may be an initial attempt. However, current gas projects cast doubt on the viability of this project.

The project company is held with a 25% stake by each of the countries. The plan is to create LNG facilities on the shores of the Black Sea, emminating from Azerbaijan, then transport the gas via upgraded pipelines to storage facilities in Hungary, or onward to points west.

The viability of this project falls flat when you consider the other pipeline and LNG projects that are at more advanced stages, and provide equal or higher supply diversification.

First, the LNG facility under development on the island of Krk, Adria LNG, which at the moment does not have a direct investment from either the Hungarian government or MOL or its Croatian subsidary INA, is a cheaper and more effective option at supply diversification. The cost of the facility is substantial, so much so, that RWE recently pulled out. Leaving a gap that Hungary/MOL/INA can fill. The high cost of one facility to construct with 4 other partners would be substantially cheaper than building two facilities with limited supply diversification.

The fact that the gas that would feed AGRI is the same gas that will be feeding Nabucco or even the Edison backed IGI (if it happens), means AGRI offers very limited supply diversification. If we consider that Turkey and Bulgaria will probably be stable transport countries. Investing in a sea based transport route literally becomes a floating white elephant – with gas.

The limited supply of Azeri gas is already a problem for Nabucco and IGI. Will Hungary and Romania (already Nabucco partners) really compete against themselves for the same Azeri gas? Although it was just stated by Turkmenistan that they have huge reserves they want to export, realization of this supply, in an efficient and timely manner, remains to be determined.

Cost is another component. Can AGRI really compete against a pipeline route? Most likely not. Nabucco will cost €8 billion for 31 bcm, while the Krk facility is planned to cost $1.5 billion for 10 bcm per year. But then use this equation (LNG terminal x 2 + #tankers = expensive).   AGRI has not stated the amount the capacity. I would also assume the long term operating costs are also much lower on a pipeline operation. In addition, the facility is being designed to be expanded up to 15 bcm.

There is plenty of room just in the Adria LNG facility to off set any need in AGRI. In addition, if additional Azeri gas is what Romania and Hungary really want, this can be transported through Turkey and bottled up and shipped via LNG tanker to Krk.

The peanut for this white elephant is the Hungarian government choosing to go with MVM to be the project company. If it was a viable project MOL would become involved in it, not a generation company that already distorts market operations. But just like South Stream is a government supported project with progress now amounting to the number of intergovernmental agreements signed, but limited identification of which Russian gas fields will be used, this project will be long on talk and short on results.

It is important to try to understand why Hungary and Romania are joining this consortium if it isn’t a serious project. I still stand by my earlier assessment of why Hungary is choosing both Nabucco and South Stream. However, I’m more unsure as to the purpose of signing up to this project, maybe it is to turn up the pressure on Russia. They can both press their positions on Gazprom and see if it is serious about building South Stream.

While Gazprom dallies to sign up new partners every day, at the end of the day, it may represent a political shot across the bow towards Russia by Hungary and Romania. They may be hinting to Gazprom to get serious. Romania may be pressuring Gazprom to choose it over  Bulgaria for the Black Sea landing spot,  while the new Hungarian government might just like to throw off balance Russia/Gazprom. Either way, AGRI is not a serious project for supply diversification – rather a mouse used to scare the elephant.