Gazprom Is Losing Its Market Muscle

Competition forces the Russian energy giant to make nice.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

Gazprom, the state-controlled, Moscow-based natural gas giant has long played a double role: as an instrument of Kremlin foreign policy; and as a major source of tax revenue for Vladimir Putin’s government.

Things have changed. Gazprom has long been accustomed to dictating terms because of its size. In the European Union, it supplies about 30 percent of the gas. But with a 70 percent drop in profits, the Russian company finds itself fighting to protect its share of a market it depends on for as much as a third of its revenue of $100 billion. Gazprom is no longer a potent diplomatic tool at a time when customers have many more options.

By 2025, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), gas imports by the EU will account for 77 percent of its consumption, up from 63 percent now. Gazprom will not necessarily be supplying Europe with those extra imports. American companies will be providing liquefied shale gas to European power plants starting next year. “U.S. shale gas will provide a very important opportunity for European consumers to strengthen their hands,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. U.S. exports may make up half of flexible liquid natural gas volumes heading to Europe by 2020, says Philip Olivier, chief executive officer of Engie Global LNG, a shipper of flexible LNG. “Flexible” means the gas can be shipped anywhere.

It’s not just America. “There will be competition between American gas, Russian gas, Algerian gas, Middle Eastern gas,” Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné said in October. In response, Gazprom has dropped the bluster and threats it used with European clients that protested Moscow’s actions in Ukraine last year and whose governments imposed sanctions on Russia. (The Western sanctions don’t restrict purchases of Russian natural gas.) Instead, the company is paying more attention to customer needs, announcing plans for a pipeline that would transport its gas directly to the EU and pushing to settle an EU antitrust claim that could cost it billions of dollars.

The new approach complements Russia’s attempts to ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and boost cooperation in fighting terrorists in Syria. Those efforts have met with limited success, but Russia is persistent. “The position of Gazprom and the Russian side is becoming flexible in light of the changing situation, defending our interests but also taking into account the demands of the European side,” says First Deputy Energy Minister Alexey Teksler.

Gazprom is trying both to appease the Europeans and look for new customers. “In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, gas diversification became a mantra for both the EU and Russia,” says Simone Tagliapietra, energy fellow at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. But “Russia needs the EU gas market as much as—if not more than—the EU market needs Russian gas.”

Gazprom’s room to maneuver is limited. All the gas for Europe is shipped by pipeline, meaning Russia can’t divert it to other markets. Links to China aren’t expected to be built until after 2019. Russia shelved plans to turn Turkey into a conduit to Europe after the Turks downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November.

Gazprom’s “export policy has always been balanced and adaptive,” says spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov. He argues that European customers have become more interested, not less, in Russian gas, given Europe’s own decline in production.

The Kremlin’s traditional hard-line approach to customers was on display last year when tensions over the crisis in Ukraine led to the worst breach in relations with the West since the Cold War. “Europe has lost,” Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller declared after Russia signed its first gas supply deal with China. He said another deal would come in the “nearest future” that would allow Russia to redirect some EU-bound gas from deep in West Siberia to Asia.

In September 2014, Gazprom started to limit gas deliveries to some EU members, including Poland and Slovakia. They had been supplying gas to Ukraine to replace supplies that Russia had cut off in a pricing dispute with its neighbor. Russia warned that the conflict with Kiev could disrupt supplies to Europe, as had happened in 2006 and 2009. In both those episodes, Gazprom cut off gas to Ukraine. Because Europe got most of its Russian gas via Ukraine, Gazprom’s actions imposed shortages on the EU as well.

In January 2015, Miller told the EU’s new energy chief, Maros Sefcovic, that Gazprom would cut off shipments to Europe via Ukraine after the current pipeline contract ran out in 2019. That would force customers to build new pipelines. “We don’t work like this,” a stunned Sefcovic told reporters in Moscow.

But since the spring, the pressure has been growing on Gazprom. The plunge in gas prices has begun to bite. Gazprom expects revenue in Europe in 2016 to be down 16 percent, the lowest in 11 years. Its giant Siberian fields are operating far below capacity. It says production this year will fall to a record low because of weak demand, primarily from Ukraine, which isn’t buying much.

In April, Brussels unsealed an antitrust complaint alleging Gazprom sold gas to Poland and the Baltic states at prices up to 21 percent higher than the average. If the charges are proven, the gas giant could pay as much as $3.8 billion in fines, VTB Capital in Moscow estimates. Gazprom denies all the charges.

In negotiations to export more gas to China, talks have stalled. After a September visit to China again failed to yield a deal to expand shipments, Gazprom hastily signed a pact with five big EU companies including oil major Shell and utility E.ON to build a pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Russian officials say they’re ready to offer lower prices to gas customers that help fund construction, as well as concessions to ensure the pact wins EU approval. The company later made a formal offer to settle the EU’s antitrust charges.

Miller has publicly backed off from threats to cease shipments via Ukraine after 2019. Gazprom is also giving in to European clients’ calls for more pricing flexibility. Slowly, Gazprom is learning how to operate like an ordinary company that has to work on its customer relations.

With Ilya Arkhipov, Tino Andresen, and Alex Morales

The bottom line: As Russia tries to defuse tensions with the West, Gazprom is blustering less and promising more.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE