Liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe isn't a get-rich-quick scenario for the impatient investor: It's a long, strategic play for the sophisticated investor who can handle no small amount of politics and geopolitics along the way. When it comes to Europe, Russia's strategy to divide and conquer has worked so far, but Gazprom is a fragile giant that will eventually feel the pressure of LNG.
Robert Bensh is an LNG and energy security expert who has over 13 years of experience with leading oil and gas companies in Ukraine. He has been involved in various roles in finance, capital markets, mergers and acquisitions and government for the past 25 years. Mr. Bensh is the Managing Director and partner with Pelicourt LLC, a private equity firm focused on energy and natural resources in Ukraine.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Bensh tells us:
• Why the smart LNG play is a long-term one
• How LNG fits into the European energy picture
• Why LNG will eventually pressure Russia in Europe
• Why Gazprom is but a fragile giant
• How Russia combines gas and political influence in Eastern Europe
• How the European Union is easy to divide and conquer
• Why the Ukraine crisis has brought attention to the South Stream pipeline
• Why Bulgaria is the new front line
• How Lithuania succeeded in negotiating down Gazprom
• What Moscow's Crimea annexation really achieved
• Why it's game over for Gazprom prices when Turkey steps in
James Stafford: Where does LNG fit into the overall European energy picture?
Robert Bensh: A better question might be, "When does LNG fit into the European energy picture?" When the price is right, it fits into the picture across the European Union, with new import terminals under construction, plenty of transmission lines to deliver it to land-locked countries and the prospect of deliveries from rising energy hub Turkey. And while it may not be a reality at this very moment, it is the prospect of cheaper LNG and the pace of LNG infrastructure development that has Gazprom worried about maintaining its monopoly.
James Stafford: So from an investor's perspective, what do we need to know here?
Robert Bensh: Listen, the LNG economics are marginal. LNG is about long-term, steady supply. It's a low-margin, long-term supply of gas to Europe. This is not a play for impatient investors who are looking to get rich quickly. This is a play for investors with longer-term vision, patience and strategic capabilities on a regional level. Those are the people who are going to make money off of this and, along the way, help reshape the balance in Europe away from Russia.
James Stafford: Who are the buyers in this scenario?
Robert Bensh: The countries that primarily take LNG are the Eastern European countries that are paying the highest gas prices and feeling the most significant strategic energy crunch from Russia. They can purchase large amounts of LNG on five 10-year contracts.
James Stafford: And what will Gazprom's response to more LNG for Europe be? What are its options?
Robert Bensh: Gazprom will either see its supply reduced, or it will be forced to reduce prices to limit economic impact. But once we can start getting LNG through the Turkish-controlled Bosphorus Strait, it is game over for Gazprom in terms of pricing. You'll still have LNG coming into Europe simply because demand will always exceed supply with long-term contracts in place. That's when you'll start to see significant amounts of Canadian and American LNG entering the European and Asian markets, which will affect gas prices in Europe.
James Stafford: Has Russia's, or Gazprom's, energy strategy in Europe really been as sinisterly brilliant as is often suggested?
Robert Bensh: In many ways, yes; but it has its limitations. Financially, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom is a fragile giant.
Russia's European energy policy is to approach different EU states on an individual basis in order to discriminate with price and get the maximum price possible from each. Beyond that, Russia also attempts to lock in supply by consolidating control over strategic energy infrastructure throughout Europe, as well as Eurasia.
In 2002, for example, Russia attempted to buy major energy infrastructure holdings in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. When both countries refused to cede control, Moscow sharply cut oil deliveries to both states. The final piece of Moscow's strategy is to maintain control of energy corridors, thus denying Europe any alternative energy routes.
Russia gets away with this because its divide-and-conquer energy strategy is made easy by the fact that the European Union is anything but unified.
James Stafford: How does Gazprom's controversial South Stream pipeline play into the crisis in Ukraine?
Robert Bensh: The South Stream pipeline is now coming into much clearer focus against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis. This pipeline, which would run from the Black Sea to Austria and bypass Ukraine, is both a frightening and exciting proposition for Central and Eastern Europe. The specter of this pipeline makes the fractures in Europe highly visible.
The annexation of Crimea was significant on numerous fronts. The Ukraine crisis provided Russia with the opportunity to achieve important the economic and geopolitical goals of promoting alternative energy supplies that bypass Ukraine. And the results have been quick: Already, some EU countries have indicated that they are willing to drop their objections to the South Stream pipeline in order to increase the percentage of gas shipped directly from Russia.
James Stafford: What about Bulgaria's recent back-and-forth over South Stream? What can we read into this?
Robert Bensh: For the South Stream pipeline, which is largely a macrocosm of the Ukraine crisis, the front line is Bulgaria, where Russian influence is now at its strongest, and where there is already talk of the country becoming the next Ukraine. The wider EU is trying to block the South Stream project, while Central and Eastern Europe are very torn. Bulgaria is where this pipeline will enter the EU, and accusations persist that Gazprom has had a hand in framing Bulgarian legislation that would circumvent EU competition directives. All of Europe wants this pipeline, but Brussels doesn't want it to be majority-Russian owned — they want to enable other suppliers to bring gas through it.
The Bulgarian story is getting very interesting. Last week, the Bulgarian government said it was suspending working on South Stream, under pressure from the EU over the project and U.S. sanctions against Russian firms working on the project. Bulgaria is caught in a very bad place here—between Russia and the EU. On the one hand it is suspending work—for now, as it consults with the EU. On the other hand, it is making sure everyone knows it still intends to go ahead with South Stream.
James Stafford: How much of a threat to Russia is the European Commission's pending investigation into Gazprom's monopolistic activities?
Robert Bensh: Europe has argued that Gazprom manipulates prices for political gain and the European Commission is set to release the results of a two-year investigation this month, which is expected to demonstrate substantial evidence that Gazprom is breaking European laws. After that report is released, the EC could take action relatively quickly with up to10 billion euros in fines, which Gazprom cannot afford. Again, the Bulgaria question will figure prominently in his debate.
James Stafford: How does Russia take advantage of the divisions within the EU?
Robert Bensh: The problem within the EU is that Western European countries have more supply opportunities, while Central and Eastern Europe are stuck with Russia. There is no common policy among the EU countries, so there can be no unified front to take on Russia in the energy sphere. Russia takes full advantage of this bifurcation. While talking of interdependence and dialogue, Russia has insisted on providing demand guarantees for the producers and sharing responsibilities and risks among energy supplier's consumers and transit states. Russia's actions have not backed up its visions for a new global energy security due to the state policy of not budging from monopolizing gas production or oil and gas pipeline transportation. Europeans are wholly energy dependent on Russia.
Russia conducts geo-economic warfare on Europe. Russia's vast oil and gas resources and strategic geographic positioning has translated into increased influence in global energy markets and political clout in its relations with the numerous states that remain more or less dependent on Russian energy. Lawsuits and rulings from the European Commission will prove to be well intended, yet ultimately failed efforts to control Russia's policy aims driven by control of energy supply and transportation. Here is where efforts to reduce dependence by one client state will have a concomitant benefit for other client state consumers. The European Union lacks a coherent, unified energy strategy and policy toward Russia. Russia thus wisely triangulates client states and the EU to achieve their policy goals either through cheaper supply or infrastructural development.
James Stafford: Will other countries in the region follow the example of Lithuania and Poland—both of which are aggressively pursuing alternatives to Russian piped gas?
Robert Bensh: Some, yes, out of necessity. The wisest ones, of course, will develop what they can internally of their own resources in an effort to reduce or possibly even remove the need for Russian oil and gas.
James Stafford: Where in Europe is there the potential to actually develop domestic resources to reduce Russian dependence?
Robert Bensh: Ukraine has the potential to do so. Poland, potentially, as well. Other countries, the Baltics in particular, will have a much harder time reducing dependence through internal resource development. For this reason, the development of LNG and additional transportation routes to the region are vital strategically to reduce the dependence on Russian energy.
James Stafford: How should we perceive Lithuania's recent success in negotiating down gas prices with Gazprom?
Robert Bensh: The country has very earnestly pursued LNG and is close to signing a supply deal with Norway's Statoil. This, in turn, has forced Russia into price concessions for fear of losing market share. But for now, it's a luxury that the poorer members of the EU in Central and Eastern Europe cannot afford, economically or politically.
Unfortunately, most countries will not play ball. Either they have enough of an internally generated resource base to help reduce dependence on Russian energy, or they have multi-integrated economic ties to Russia. Or both.
The crisis in Ukraine has taught us a devastating lesson: The failure to reduce dependence on Russia, in combination with a multi-integrated economic union with Russia, exposes a client state to geo-economic warfare. In Ukraine, this situation eventually led to President Viktor Yanukovych refusing to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, which in ignited the Maidan protests that led to the president's overthrow and Russia's annexation of Crimea.
James Stafford: Where will politics and geopolitics head this off? What is Russia's weak point, it's Achilles' heel?
Robert Bensh: Russia has done a good job of tactically focusing on each client state, recognizing their weaknesses and exacerbating them to suit their needs. The only countries that can head this off are those with independent economies and diversified energy supplies. Russia can only provide oil and gas supplies and energy infrastructure development. It cannot provide expertise in oil and gas drilling or service, which really comes from the United States.
And Gazprom's Achilles' heel—that which makes it a fragile giant—is the prospect of losing the European market to LNG. And it eventually will, at least in part, though it won't be tomorrow.
James Stafford: What does the LNG pricing look like right now?
Robert Bensh: LNG is always about $1 less than Gazprom. The U.S. wants to sell their LNG, period. Asian prices are higher, anywhere from $3-$4 higher. But long, steady supply will always get sold. Unless Gazprom comes down in its prices, to make LNG uneconomic, there will always be an LNG marketplace in Europe. There will always be enough supply to meet demand in Europe. All Gazprom has to do is drop its prices down $1 and LNG will be uneconomic. But you have some countries in Europe who are willing to pay a premium to reduce their dependence on Russian gas. LNG supply and the development of internal resources is a strategic decision being made by each country.
There won't really be U.S. LNG hitting Europe until 2017-2018. There isn't enough LNG coming from the U.S. to supply both Asia and Europe. Until there are more export terminals built in the U.S., there will always be significantly more demand than supply, from a U.S. standpoint. For now, U.S. LNG does not impact Europe—we're not transporting enough in the next five years.
James Stafford: Last month, amid the crisis in Ukraine, Russia and China inked what is viewed as a highly significant gas deal. What are the implications of this deal for Europe?
Robert Bensh: Let's put this into perspective a bit: This Russia-China deal might not be squeezing out potential supply to Europe, but making up for the likely disappearance of the market for gas from Ukraine. A decade ago, Ukraine was buying 52 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia, and last year, this was down to 28bcm. The take-or-pay agreement signed in 2009 was for 42 bcm, which is more than the annual supply as per the China deal. It is not unreasonable to think of Ukraine being totally self-sufficient in gas over the next decade as rational energy pricing reduces very inefficient consumption, while Ukraine has lot of opportunities to hike production -- assuming it remains unified.