Russia Natural Gas and European Risk

  • The EU's dependence on Russian natural gas is directly linked to its own gas production, which has fallen faster than EU member countries' demand for gas.
  • While US LNG exports aren't an immediate remedy, due to permitting and construction time lags, the prospect of their availability is already affecting the gas market.

Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula has drawn new attention to Europe's reliance on energy supplies from Russia, particularly for natural gas. Lacking the means to force Russia's president to back down, US politicians and leading newspapers have latched onto the idea of exporting shale gas to reduce the EU's vulnerability to an accidental or intentional disruption of these supplies.  The efficacy of this strategy depends on more than the logistics and timing of US liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects.

The European Union is expected to import 15.5 billion cubic feet (BCF) per day of natural gas from Russia this year, roughly half of which would normally be transported by pipelines passing through Ukraine. Worries about the security of these supplies in the current crisis are compounded by Europe's increasing reliance on gas imports from all sources.

While EU gas consumption, based on the union's 28 current member countries, has been essentially flat over the last decade, its production has declined by more than a third, as shown in the chart below. As of the end of 2012, EU self-sufficiency in gas stood at just 35%. The widening of the gap between EU gas demand and production bears a close resemblance to the situation in which the US found itself with regard to crude oil prior to the shale revolution, and it is the main source of Europe's vulnerability in natural gas.




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After Russia, the EU's main gas suppliers are Norway and Algeria, primarily by pipeline, followed by LNG sourced from Qatar, Nigeria and other countries.  Russia's leading role in supplying Europe's gas is consistent with its status as the world's second-largest gas producer and largest gas exporter, its proximity to the EU, and its pipeline network developed over multiple decades. Europe's gas supply mix includes ample political risk, but none of the EU's other suppliers are geopolitical rivals like Russia.

The EU has three main options for reducing its dependence on gas imports from Russia. It could shrink natural gas consumption, which is already happening to a modest degree as pricey gas-fired power generation is being squeezed out between subsidized wind and solar power and cheaper coal power, in a mirror image of US trends of the last several years.  This seems inconsistent with the EU's long-term emission goals and its need for gas to back up intermittent renewable electricity generation, so the further scope for this option appears limited, at least for the next decade.

EU countries could also attempt to revive domestic gas production. Europe's conventional gas fields may be in decline, other than in non-EU Norway, but its shale gas potential was estimated at 470 trillion cubic feet (TCF) in the US Energy Information Administration's global shale assessment last year. That's about 40% bigger than Europe's reserves and technically recoverable resources of conventional gas. Uncertainties on this estimate are still large, but it's in the same ballpark with the Marcellus shale in the eastern US, which currently produces over 14 BCF/day.

Unfortunately, initial efforts in Poland's shale have been disappointing, while Germany, France, and other countries have imposed explicit or implicit moratoria on shale gas development. Unless these policies are reversed in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, the EU will be unable to grow its way out of its dependence on Russia.

That leaves import diversification as the likeliest path for weaning Europe off Russian gas. This process is underway incrementally, hastened by previous Russian gas brinksmanship. Interest in US gas is understandable on many levels, not least because even after increasing production by around 17 BCF/day since 2006, US shale resources are expected to add another 13 BCF/day by 2020.

Energy experts have been quick to point out that the first US LNG exports won't be available for at least several years, and that companies, rather than governments, are the main parties involved in gas contracts. Customers in Europe will have to compete for US and other LNG supplies with customers elsewhere, especially in Asia, where China's gas demand is growing and Japan's post-Fukushima nuclear shutdowns have dramatically increased LNG imports.

These constraints are real. However, they ignore the ways in which changing the market's expectations about future LNG supplies--and potentially prices--could affect the calculations of Europe's gas buyers today and limit the political leverage that Russia's dominant gas export position conveys. Anecdotal reports suggest that US LNG is already a factor in contract renegotiations in Eastern Europe. As Amy Myers Jaffe of UC Davis and formerly the Baker Institute tweeted a few weeks ago, "it isn't about physical LNG cargo to Europe; it is about US exports promoting market liberalization (and) greater liquidity." 

 A decision by the US government to streamline the permitting and development of LNG facilities wouldn't enable US exports to displace Russian gas in Europe this year or next, but it would put Russia on notice that in the future it must compete in a market in which gas customers in Europe and elsewhere will have much greater choice. That would certainly complicate President Putin's plans.
 
A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.