China-Russia Gas Talks Go Into Overtime

An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
gazprom-june-2013.jpg Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller attends the company's annual meeting in Moscow, June 28, 2013.

With the passing of 2013, Russia and China have missed another deadline for completing one of the world's biggest energy deals.

Negotiations on a 30-year pact to supply China with natural gas have dragged on for over a decade, despite a series of annual goals.

President Vladimir Putin first promoted the export of Siberian gas to neighboring China during a trip to Beijing over 13 years ago, and Russia's Gazprom unveiled an ambitious plan to build two Siberian pipelines to China during another Putin visit in 2006.

But last March, state-owned Gazprom set a firm time line for finalizing an export contract with China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC).

"The parties plan to sign legally-binding principal terms and conditions of the contract in June this year and sign the long-term contract by the end of the year," Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said during a visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In September, Gazprom said an agreement on basic conditions was belatedly signed at a meeting in St. Petersburg, but the contract for sales of 38 billion cubic meters (1.3 trillion cubic feet) per year has yet to materialize.

In what appeared to be an admission of further delay, Miller responded positively when asked in mid-December whether the deal might be done in time for the Chinese New Year on Jan. 31.

"Definitely," he said, according to Interfax. "The contract's degree of readiness is very high. The only thing left to decide is the base price."

Impasse over price

The two sides have been at odds over the starting price of the gas deal for at least 11 years.

Other terms are said to have been settled with agreements on a delivery date of 2018, a single pipeline route from eastern Siberia and a formula for price adjustments.

But analysts have warned that nothing is really final until the contract is complete. Differences over the starting price still stand in the way of a deal that could be valued at over U.S. $300 billion (1.8 trillion yuan).

The two sides have not disclosed the current size of the gap between Gazprom's offer and CNPC's bid, but in the past, it has been at least $50 per thousand cubic meters, a difference of more than U.S. $55 billion over time.

Reports of progress in the price talks have been mixed.

"Gazprom remains a long way from reaching agreement with CNPC on the price of future pipeline exports," the industry weekly Argus FSU Energy said in mid-December.

But on Jan. 5, the London-based Financial Times reported that "an agreement is within reach," citing analysts and sources on both sides.

Central Asian investment

One reason China has been resisting Russia's price demands is that CNPC has already invested heavily in Central Asian gas with a 2,000-kilometer (1,242-mile) pipeline from Turkmenistan.

After losing money on imports under state-controlled prices for years, CNPC got some relief in July when the government raised domestic gas rates for industrial use.

But China has refused to accept high Russian prices that could lock in losses for decades to come, even though it is paying even higher prices for imported liquefied natural gas (LNG).

In a report cited by Barron's business weekly, the investment bank Credit Suisse said Gazprom "will have to concede on the issue of pricing ... owing to its weak bargaining power." So far, it remains to be seen that it will.

"Nothing has fundamentally changed," said Edward Chow, senior fellow in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The Chinese still believe that time's on their side and Russia needs to come their way," Chow said in an interview. "The only question is whether the Russians will bite the bullet this time and concede on pricing to something more palatable to the Chinese."

Is a deal close?

According to the Financial Times, the two sides are converging on a price range equivalent to U.S. $280-308 (1,692-1861 yuan) per thousand cubic meters at the Russian-Chinese border, but it is unclear whether such a compromise will seal the deal.

On Monday, the Russian daily Vedomosti also said that a deal was close, but it reported a higher price range of U.S. $360-400 (2,175-2,417 yuan) per thousand cubic meters as a minimum for Gazprom.

In a recent study by the China Energy Fund Committee, a Hong Kong-based nonpartisan think tank, Chow noted that Chinese energy experts have shown little concern with the country's reliance on imported gas through 2020, voicing confidence in the development of domestic resources including shale gas in the long term.

That confidence may account for China's reluctance to meet Russian price demands and its relative lack of concern with current gas shortages as it promotes the cleaner-burning fuel to replace coal in urban areas.

If China is correct in predicting that import dependence will ease after 2020, it may see little reason to sign a 30-year Russian deal.

Chow noted Putin's agreement in December to slash gas prices for Ukraine by one-third as an incentive for Kiev to forgo an association agreement with the European Union.

In separate negotiations with its European customers, Gazprom has also granted retroactive discounts on its export prices since 2010, encouraging China to hold out for similar breaks.

'Political decision' needed

Chow said it may take a political decision between Putin and Xi to break the impasse on gas.

"If they fail to strike a deal after making this big push in Xi Jinping's first year, you wonder whether it isn't an infinite process of negotiation that may never come to a head," Chow said.

Despite obstacles to the gas deal, Russia and China have made major breakthroughs on oil in the past year with the agreement of state-owned Rosneft on doubling exports to CNPC over 25 years in a deal valued at some U.S. $270 billion.

Moscow has also overcome its longtime opposition to major Chinese investments in the Russian energy sector, clearing the way for CNPC to take a 20-percent stake in a groundbreaking Arctic project by independent Novatek to export LNG.

But similar progress in the Gazprom deal with CNPC has yet to be seen.

In one troubling sign, Gazprom has not included any funding for a pipeline or field development to supply China in its capital spending plan for 2014, Reuters reported, citing Vedomosti and the Itar-Tass news agency.

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