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Brian Bremner: Russia’s Panic Over America’s Shale Revolution

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Brian Bremner, Bloomberg/Business Week

Beneath Putin’s swagger lie weaknesses at the core of the economy that threaten Russia’s future — and with it, his power base. America’s surprising return as an energy superpower is complicating life for the Russian petro state.

For Russian leaders, sticking it to the Americans has long been a source of both personal satisfaction and political gain. By that standard, President Vladimir Putin is riding high. He’s enraged Washington officialdom by supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—despite his apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians—and obstructing efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Activists in the U.S. and Europe have called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over the country’s harsh new antigay law. The Kremlin’s decision to shelter National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, wanted on espionage charges in the U.S., prompted President Obama to nix a one-on-one meeting ahead of the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 5 and 6.

Since reclaiming the presidency in May 2012, Putin has become the biggest impediment to the Obama administration’s foreign policy aims. That’s undoubtedly played well with Russians yearning for the days when the country was a superpower. Yet beneath Putin’s swagger lie weaknesses at the core of the economy that threaten Russia’s future—and with it, his power base. And for that, he can blame a familiar nemesis: the U.S.

His difficulty has nothing to do with intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles—and everything to do with natural gas that’s cooled to -260F at normal pressure, condensed into liquid form, and transported on special tankers to markets around the world. America’s surprising return as an energy superpower is complicating life for the Russian petro state. The rise of a vibrant, global, and pipeline-free liquefied natural gas (LNG) market is a direct threat to Russia’s interests in Europe, where Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant, supplies about 25 percent of the gas. So is the shift in pricing power from suppliers to consumers as a result of the huge supply shock emanating from North America.

Russia is still the world’s biggest overall energy exporter: It’s the No. 1 oil producer and No. 2 in gas after the U.S. However, the country’s known oil reserves—primarily between the Ural Mountains and the Central Siberian Plateau—are enough to sustain current production levels for just 20 years, according to a study in December by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), vs. 70 years for Saudi Arabia and 90 years for the United Arab Emirates. Untapped oil and gas reserves in eastern Siberia and the Arctic will take massive investments to explore.

Putin’s aware of the problem. “For many years we have had a situation when prices for our main export goods rose fast and almost without interruption, and this made it possible for Russian companies and for the government to cover high expenses,” he told global executives at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 21. “But this situation has changed now. There are no simple solutions and no magic wand we can wave to change things overnight.”

That may be true, but the country has little time to waste. Many Russians, and in particular members of the president’s inner circle, have benefited hugely from the country’s energy-export windfall. Now that foundation is slipping away. The question is whether Putin’s power will, too.

When he took over at the start of the last decade (he served as president from 2000 to 2008 and premier for four years after that), the global economy was in the early stages of a commodities supercycle. Accelerating global demand, led by a China growing at about 10 percent annually, coincided with rising prices for oil, gas, copper, coal, and other natural resources. Political instability in Venezuela, the start of the Second Gulf War, and Hurricane Katrina all constrained supply and refining capacity, sending energy markets into overdrive.

Through 2008, Putin oversaw an average of 7 percent growth in gross domestic product and a huge expansion in Russia’s middle class. At its 2007 annual meeting, Gazprom, the world’s largest gas producer, served red and black caviar. Management Committee Chairman Alexey Miller said the company, whose market value at the time was $360 billion, would someday be worth $1 trillion.

Russia’s phenomenal run of prosperity would have been an ideal time to diversify the economy beyond energy, a goal that harks back to the days of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Instead, energy’s share of the economy actually increased; as of late 2012, oil and gas accounted for about 70 percent of exports, compared with less than 50 percent in the mid-1990s, providing half of the government’s revenue and roughly 17 percent of GDP, according to the EBRD. […]

Five years ago, peak oil theorists predicted that global production would soon hit its high-water mark and then decline inexorably, with the U.S. growing even more dependent on overseas energy imports. Those trends seemed to play into Putin’s hands. What he didn’t anticipate was that U.S. oil production—thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology, in which pressurized water and chemicals are blasted into rocks to release energy—would increase 46 percent. That equals the entire output of Nigeria, estimates Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of consulting firm IHS. “Think of it like a non-OPEC country appearing in North Dakota or southern Texas,” Yergin told executives at the St. Petersburg forum in June.

Between now and 2018, North America will provide 40 percent of new supplies through the development of light, tight oil and oil sands, while the contribution from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will slip to 30 percent, according to the International Energy Agency, which also sees the U.S. emerging as the biggest oil producer by 2020 and a net exporter of oil by about 2030. Meanwhile, the agency trimmed global fuel demand estimates for the next four years.

The U.S. is also on pace to add 2 trillion cubic feet per year of natural gas once three just-approved LNG projects start operating, an 8 percent increase in total U.S. capacity based on 2012 production levels. More LNG facilities are coming onstream in Australia, South Korea, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Yergin predicts natural gas, both conventional and liquefied, will be the No. 1 energy source by the end of 2030.

Russia’s worry is twofold: An expanding supply of affordable LNG, which is transported by ship, is forcing Gazprom to either cut prices or lose share. (Weird and surprising fact: As American utilities shift to gas, displaced U.S. coal is flooding into European markets. The U.S. may supplant Russia as the world’s No. 3 coal exporter by yearend, according to Goldman Sachs) Second, the Russian gas giant is under pressure to adopt spot-market pricing instead of tying its prices to oil. In June, Gazprom agreed to revise its gas contracts with German utility RWE after losing an arbitration case; it’s renegotiating supply contracts with other utilities, including Eni and EconGas. The European Union is also drafting an antitrust complaint against Gazprom for abusing its dominant position, say three people familiar with the probe who asked not to be named. The company declined to comment. Longer term, the Russians may even have to contend with shale energy assets being developed by Western oil majors in Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania, all Gazprom profit sanctuaries.

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