sexta-feira, 28 de outubro de 2016

EU grants Russian gas giant go-ahead to expand in Europe, politics aside

EU grants Russian gas giant go-ahead to expand in Europe, politics aside
The timing is awkward.

By ANCA GURZU AND SARA STEFANINI 10/28/16, 8:43 PM CET Updated 10/28/16, 8:52 PM CET

Despite deepening strain between Moscow and the West, the European Commission has given approval to a Russian gas giant to carry more gas along a pipeline in Germany — drawing the ire of Ukraine and Poland.

The Commission’s Friday night green light comes in response to a years-long debate over whether Russia’s state-owned Gazprom should be permitted to use more of the pipeline.

Gazprom said the approval would allow the company to deliver more gas to a region struggling to make up for waning home-grown energy supplies.

Opponents, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, counter that it’s a political move aimed at consolidating Russia’s grip on their energy markets — especially when coupled with the Commission’s willingness to settle an antitrust investigation against Gazprom.

“My gut feeling tells me this is a more of a realpolitik kind of deal rather than a real willingness to push it through on the Commission’s part,” said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

The timing is awkward.

Granting Gazprom’s request could hardly come at a more politically difficult moment for EU officials, with relations between Russia and the West deeply strained over the Kremlin’s military activities in Ukraine and Syria, allegations of Russian meddling in European and American elections and internal tension among European leaders over how to deal with Moscow and whether to maintain and even expand sanctions against it.

It also comes just days after Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager met Gazprom officials to discuss a possible settlement of the separate antitrust case in which Gazprom is accused of using its market power to bully Central and Eastern European gas customers.

Brussels framed its approval Friday of more capacity along the OPAL pipeline as one that will provide Western Europe with a replacement for declining supply from the North Sea and Netherlands, where gas fields are running low and operations have taken a hit from the oil price slump.

EU officials stressed that the approval comes with safeguards that could actually make access to the OPAL line in Germany more competitive than it is now — if companies are interested in taking it. They batted away suggestions of any political implications from the decision.

“The extra volumes Gazprom might ship through Nord Stream 1 and OPAL are needed,” an EU source said. “There is demand for more gas” in the region.

The countries that stand to lose because of the approval, including Poland and Ukraine, don’t see it that way. They worry that giving Gazprom more room to ship gas to Germany will only increase the company’s dominance in the bloc.

Polish and Ukrainian state-owned oil and gas companies objected to the move even before the Commission announced its decision. Both countries could lose lucrative revenue if Gazprom sends more gas through the OPAL line because it would be able to divert the supply it now ships through their territories.

Poland’s PGNiG added that it’s also ready to sue both the Commission and the German energy regulator, on the grounds that the approval violates the EU’s Third Energy Package of rules barring pipeline operators from discriminating against rival companies.

In many ways, the debate over granting Gazprom increased use of the OPAL pipeline was less a test of European versus Russian interests and more of a tug-of-war among EU countries over those transit fees.

“I don’t see any fundamental change in the behavior of Gazprom. It is a company representing the interests of the state,” said Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian Liberal MEP. “I wish the European Union were less dependent on Gazprom and had more diversified suppliers. That’s why any increase of gas from Gazprom is an increase in that tendency.”

What Gazprom can do

Friday’s decision allows Gazprom to use nearly all of the OPAL pipeline’s capacity, which delivers gas from the Nord Stream 1 link with Russia. OPAL can carry up to 36.5 billion cubic meters of gas. Until now, Gazprom has been allowed to use up to 50 percent of the pipeline, thanks to a 2009 exemption to the Third Energy Package.

Gazprom will be able to ship about 10 billion cubic meters of additional gas to Europe. That’s the same amount the EU wants to draw from Azerbaijan by 2020 along a new pipeline in southern Europe aimed specifically at diminishing the bloc’s reliance on Russian gas.

The safeguards Brussels attached to the approval for Gazprom’s OPAL use are designed to ensure competitors get preferential access to a slice of that pipeline’s capacity if they want it.

Whether any companies are interested in using the OPAL line to carry more gas from Russia to Europe is in doubt, de Jong said.

“In the end, Gazprom also wanted to show … there is competition. But at the end of the day, the European Commission should fully understand that in that part of the European gas market there is just one producer,” he said.

The EU source also shot down concerns that the OPAL decision will disrupt the Ukrainian transit route “in the short- or medium-term,” saying Gazprom’s gas shipments to Europe are bound by specific routes and delivery points.

The decision might also give Gazprom less incentive to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is meant to double the capacity of Nord Stream 1, experts said. The idea has sparked huge controversy in Brussels and Central and Eastern Europe, worried that Russia would use its gas clout as a political weapon.

“If the Nord Stream 1 pipeline becomes fully operational, why would you then need to double the entire capacity?” de Jong said.

Gazprom, however, might not see it that way. It has anticipated permission to use more of the OPAL line since well before it announced plans to build a second Nord Stream line, a source close to the discussions said.

“The whole idea is that Nord Stream 2 was always developed with the thought that sooner or later Gazprom would get more use of Nord Stream 1.”

David Herszenhorn and Nicholas Hirst contributed reporting.


Anca Gurzu and Sara Stefanini  

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