More than two decades after the end of the Soviet occupation, and eight years after they joined NATO and the European Union, the Baltic republics remain disintegrated from the rest of Europe in one crucial way: their natural gas infrastructure isolates them into “energy islands.” Yet, for the first time in their histories, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania now have a chance to secure their energy independence by connecting their natural gas networks with those of their European allies and evolving them into market-based trading systems. This will require the Baltic republics to work with their EU partners to develop the physical and regulatory infrastructure necessary for liquid trading hubs and spot-market pricing of natural gas to emerge in the region. By achieving these objectives, these three small countries on the EU’s periphery will help the EU achieve two key strategic goals: to establish a single European energy market; and to complete the full integration of the EU’s easternmost member states into a Europe that is whole and free.
As a Soviet-era legacy, the natural gas networks of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are supplied only by the Russian companies Gazprom and its ally Itera through links to the grids of Belarus, and mainland Russia; projects that will connect the Baltic republics to the rest of the EU remain either in the “proposed” or “projected” phases. The isolation of the Baltic states from the EU’s natural gas networks is incompatible both with the individual economic needs of these states and with the EU’s collective vision of a unified European energy market.
The economic impact of the Baltic states’ dependency on a single natural gas supplier can be considerable, as for example Lithuania has experienced. In 2012, Gazprom flexed its monopolistic muscles by charging Lithuania $497 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas—over 15% higher than the $431.30 it charged Germany, whose considerably greater distance from Russia’s border should result in a higher price to cover transportation costs. Moreover, the average price Gazprom charged its European consumers was only $381, or 30% less than in Lithuania. Gazprom’s price-gouging in Lithuania reflected Moscow’s attempt to punish Vilnius for proceeding with EU directives to reduce Gazprom’s monopoly power and prepare for a unified EU energy market by the end of 2014. As the company’s vice president Valery Golubov explained, “Vilnius’s inadequate behavior while restructuring the gas sector, and trying to separate the gas transmission pipelines from SC Lietuvos Dujos [Lithuania’s gas transmission and distribution company, of which Gazprom is the dominant shareholder] justified the price increase.”1
In addition to unilateral price hikes, dependency on a single monopolistic gas supplier can also lead to supply interruptions, which, in the dead of winter, can prove politically disastrous for national leaders and even deadly for consumers. In Estonia, for example, during peak winter gas demand, restrictions on the Russian side of the transmission system can render the Narva and Värska cross-border points inactive,2 as Gazprom strains to meet demand in St. Petersburg and northwest Russia—and as gas stops flowing into Estonia. According to the contract between Gazprom and Eesti Gaas (Estonia’s gas importer and distributor, in which Gazprom holds a plurality stake), under such circumstances, Estonia is forced to rely exclusively on an underground gas storage facility at Inčukalns, Latvia, in which Gazprom also holds a significant stake affording it effective control. Since the facility has limited sending capacity during times of peak demand, and since the gas interconnection between Latvia and Estonia cannot deliver more than 6 to 7 million cubic meters (mcm) per day, Estonian consumers can face cutoffs when they are most vulnerable. This came close to occurring in 2006 when frigid weather pushed Estonian gas demand to almost 7 mcm per day.
The risks of gas price hikes or cutoffs also provide Moscow significant geo-economic and geopolitical leverage, which it has not shied away from using against the Baltic republics and other EU members. Hence, the perpetuation of such “energy islands” poses a threat not just to the energy security of the Baltic states, but to their national security as well.
Toward a Unified Market: The EU’s “Third Energy Package”
During the past decade, the EU has gradually recognized the strategic importance of eliminating these Baltic “energy islands.” EU energy policy now aims to couple Baltic natural gas networks with those of their EU Allies in pursuit of two key strategic goals: the creation of a single unified energy market in Europe; and the completion of a post-Cold War Europe that is whole and free.
It took decades for the EU to reach this strategic conclusion. Previously, Europe’s largest countries acquiesced to Gazprom’s demands to lock in high prices via long-term supply contracts, which pegged the price of natural gas to the higher price of oil. This formula resulted in European consumers paying three or four times the original price paid by Gazprom for Central Asian gas that the Russian firm then pumped westward via its pipelines. Ostensibly, Gazprom charged higher prices to recover its large investments in constructing these pipelines. However, Gazprom also used the enormous rents generated by this price spread to purchase strategic infrastructure nodes in Europe to shore up its monopoly power. In any case, European consumers have paid considerably more for natural gas than they would in a liquid market.
Rather than being alarmed by these trends, the EU’s biggest countries argued that Gazprom had always been a reliable supplier; moreover, with little competition from alternative importers, major European leaders saw no sense in aggravating the largest foreign supplier of one of their most politically sensitive commodities. In addition, powerful countries like Germany, France, and Italy enjoyed a sense of security in their access to diversified supplies of natural gas from the North Sea and the Mediterranean, while smaller states heavily dependent on Gazprom were easily intimidated when Gazprom threatened to cut off gas flows in winter in response to demands for lower prices.
This acceptance of Gazprom’s monopolist tactics left much of Europe without diversified supplies of natural gas and therefore, without a genuine market. Instead of enjoying lower prices determined by market forces of supply and demand, Europe accepted Gazprom’s insistence on pegging the price of gas to that of oil. As a result, European consumers still pay three to four times more than their counterparts in the U.S., where prices are determined by market forces at trading hubs in the world’s most liquid natural gas market.
However, Europe has awakened since Gazprom cut off gas in January 2006 to Ukraine, the country through which Russia was sending 80 percent of its gas exports to the EU. Encouraged by Washington, the EU decided to take action to reduce Gazprom’s monopoly power. The European Commission developed a collection of regulations known as the “Third Energy Package” to create a unified European energy market in which prices would be determined by competition among multiple suppliers. The Third Energy Package mandates that EU member states:
· Unbundle natural gas transit and distribution networks to reduce the monopoly power of energy suppliers (both European and non-European);
· Diversify sources of gas supply;
· Connect European gas grids across EU member states;
· Expand gas trading hubs; and
· Integrate gas storage facilities into liquid trading systems based on trading hubs.
Strategic EU Interests in Baltic Spot Markets for Gas Trading
A key element of the EU’s effort to establish a single and unified energy market is to expand the free-market trading of natural gas. This requires the expansion of gas trading hubs—places near where gas is traded among several nearby suppliers who compete for buyers, resulting in prices being set according to market forces of supply and demand. The market efficiency of a hub depends on its liquidity, i.e., the degree to which a given gas trade can take place without affecting the price of subsequent trades. The level of liquidity defines the extent to which market forces determine price. Liquidity at a gas trading hub requires several factors: diversified and reliable gas supplies via nearby liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and/or pipeline networks; gas storage facilities to manage peak winter demand; and distribution pipelines to consumers that operate transparently under market-friendly regulations.
In recent decades, several natural gas trading hubs have emerged in the North Sea Basin, and now form the nucleus of Europe’s future single natural gas market. The first was the UK’s National Balancing Point, created when the British Government privatized British Gas in December 1986 and ordered the company to release gas volumes to independent suppliers who could then compete for customers.
Thanks to competition among the hubs themselves, their spot prices have converged since 2008 into a single price—and thus, a single market—for the entire North Sea Basin. This is a dramatic development: it means millions of consumers in northwestern Europe can now purchase natural gas at prices determined by the free market rather than monopolists. Consequently, both natural gas prices and monopolists’ leverage have decreased in markets served by North Sea trading hubs.
Gazprom has staunchly resisted the spread of hub-based trading in Europe, which it recognizes as the biggest threat to its monopolistic influence in its most important markets. But the Russian monopolist now appears to be losing the battle with market forces that have emerged at North Sea trading hubs. Gazprom is under pressure to sustain high gas sales prices to recoup the colossal cost of the Nord Stream pipeline, which aims to bolster the firm’s monopoly power by bypassing the Baltic states, Poland, and troublesome Ukraine through a direct pipeline between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. Yet, as will be shown below, spot market pricing at trading hubs around the North Sea are allowing European consumers to compel Gazprom to sell gas delivered via Nord Stream at prices significantly below what it projected to meet the rate of return it promised investors. As a result, Nord Stream’s excessive final cost of €7.4 billion ($9.9 billion) has triggered investor discontent by weakening Gazprom’s net profit and overall value.3
The new leverage with Gazprom that European consumers obtained from North Sea spot markets was first evident in February 2010, when competition among multiple gas suppliers enabled the TTF—a virtual trading hub in the Netherlands—to secure an important concession from the Russian supplier: spot-market pricing would determine 15% of Gazprom’s sales price at the hub (with indexation to the price of oil defining the remaining 85% of the price). This precedent was followed in early July 2012 when Gazprom acquiesced to demands by the German firm E.ON for its own price discount in return for continued acceptance in principle of oil-linked gas pricing. Sergei Komlev, head of contract structuring and price formation for Gazprom Export, stated that Gazprom was willing to make this unusual concession to protect the link between gas and oil in its pricing model. “The overall discount remained within Gazprom’s set range of no more than 7–10 percent [and] the oil-linkage in this long-term contract was preserved intact,” Komlev explained.4
By November 2012, Gazprom’s optimism had turned into a defiant, almost desperate stubbornness. On November 20, the day Norway’s Statoil signed a contract with Germany’s Wintershall to supply gas via spot-market pricing in a deal large enough to displace Gazprom as the biggest gas supplier to Germany, Gazprom’s vice president Alexander Medvedev declared that “we will defend the system of long-term contracts with all our energy.”5 Yet subsequently, due to “a flood of cheap liquefied natural gas cargoes from other sources,” Gazprom has been subsequently forced to lower prices for several large European customers.6
Bringing Spot Market Pricing to the Baltics
Despite Gazprom’s fierce resistance, hub-trading of natural gas is now expanding eastward beyond the North Sea. In the Baltic region, governments are working with the European Commission to put in place the gas supply, storage, and transportation infrastructure required to reduce the current 100 percent dependence on Russia of Finland and the Baltic countries.
Recent public debate on the Baltic region’s energy independence has focused largely on plans to construct LNG terminals in each of the three countries. LNG is indeed a critical element in any strategy to diversify sources of supply of natural gas and thereby help the EU establish a unified energy market through expansion of hub-based trading. Nevertheless, LNG terminals alone will not suffice to establish gas trading hubs in the Baltic region; liquid trading of natural gas will require that such terminals be integrated into a regional supply, storage, transportation, and trading network that allows gas to reach consumers according to price signals sent by the market. In the Baltic region, this network should include three specific projects:
· The Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania (GIPL) pipeline project to help the Baltic states diversify their sources of natural gas supply;
· Modernization, expansion, and ownership restructuring of the Inčukalns gas storage facility in Latvia and its pipeline connection to Estonia to eliminate Gazprom’s ability to restrict the free flow of gas throughout the region; and
· An LNG terminal in Estonia with a subsea pipeline connection to Finland, which will diversify regional gas supplies and establish a large enough regional market to facilitate spot trading.
The EU should designate each of these as a Project of Common Interest, thereby affording them the political and financial support required to succeed. Working with the academic community, the EU should also discourage the “go it alone” approach each Baltic state has followed to date, and instead encourage all three to work with each other and with Finland to establish trading mechanisms and regulations required for trading hubs to emerge as happened in the North Sea basin.
Lithuania: GIPL Pipeline Connection with Poland
Lithuania has been the most aggressive Baltic state in reducing its dependence on Gazprom and in supporting the EU’s quest for a unified energy market. In 2011, Lithuania adopted the EU’s Third Energy Package before any other member state, and moreover chose the strictest option offered by the directive. Vilnius immediately announced plans to contract for a floating LNG terminal at Klaipėda, with a target start-up of 2014 and a projected capacity of 2 to 3 bcm per year. It also announced it would end Gazprom’s control of Lithuania’s natural gas distribution network by separating the country’s internal pipelines from its import pipelines. Then, in September 2012, Lithuania helped prod the EU into launching an antitrust case accusing Gazprom of stifling competition in European markets by restricting interstate trading of natural gas, blocking rival gas-pipeline projects, and pegging the price of natural gas to oil prices.
The LNG terminal at Klaipėda would free Lithuania from its total dependence on Russia for gas supplies via its one-way import interconnection from Belarus, a bi-directional interconnection with Latvia used only in emergencies, and a one-way export connection to Kaliningrad, Russia. Questions remain, however, about the commercial attractiveness of the floating terminal, which is not a candidate for EU funding.
Regardless of the future of its LNG terminal, Lithuania can do even more to facilitate the emergence of gas trading hubs in the Baltic region by proceeding with the GIPL pipeline. GIPL is planned as a 562 km line with a 2.3 bcm annual capacity. The project would ensure increased competition among gas suppliers in Lithuania by providing customers diversified gas supplies and access to the EU gas spot market in the North Sea basin. Moreover, GIPL would afford Lithuania and its Baltic partners access to the benefits from expanded liquidity of gas trading once Poland’s LNG terminal at Świnoujście comes online in mid-2014.7 To play this role as facilitator of a hub-based trading system for natural gas in the Baltic region, GIPL would also need to be connected to Latvia and Estonia via expanded pipeline links.
GIPL is moving forward with EU support, but needs even more help from Brussels. Lithuania’s national gas company, Lietuvos Dujos, and the Polish engineering firm ILF plan to complete their feasibility study for GIPL during the first quarter of 2013, with co-financing from the European Commission through its Trans-European Energy Network Programme (TEN-E). Lietuvos Dujos is counting on the European Commission to provide grants of up to 80% of the projects full cost to allow a final investment decision to be taken in 2013, in which case GIPL could become operational in 2016–2017.
Latvia: Independent Gas Storage at Inčukalns
Natural gas storage is a critical element in any gas trading hub. This is because natural gas production remains constant throughout the year, including in summer when demand is low, and gas that continues to be produced must be stored until it is needed in winter. Without sufficient storage capacity near a trading hub, spot-market pricing will disappear in winter and the hub’s liquidity will remain highly restricted.
Fortunately, the Baltic region has an underground gas storage (UGS) facility at Inčukalns, Latvia. The Inčukalns UGS supplies industrial and residential end-users throughout the region, with roughly 50% of winter withdrawals allocated for Latvia, 25% for Estonia, and 25% for northwest Russia (Lithuania now only rarely draws on the UGS).8 However, the facility already operates near its full capacity of 2.32 bcm, which is insufficient to support a future gas trading hub.
A second serious shortcoming of the Inčukalns UGS is its ownership structure. Gazprom enjoys operational control over Inčukalns, which it has the right to manage through 2017. Together with the closely linked Itera, Gazprom also holds a combined controlling stake in Latvijas Gaze, the Latvian company that holds management rights over Inčukalns until 2030. According to Latvijas Gaze’s management contract, third parties cannot connect to the facility until 2017.9 For now, even modernization of Inčukalns is supervised by Gazprom through its subsidiary, Gazprom Geofizika, under a 2009 tender. This means that Inčukalns will remain under the control of its monopolist gas supplier, which relies on that same gas to supply Russian consumers (whose needs it has historically met before those in Europe during peak winter demand), and which remains opposed to the advance of gas trading hubs.
This domination of Inčukalns’ operations by Gazprom requires the EU should play a key role in expanding and restructuring the ownership of the storage facility. Otherwise, the EU will fall short of its strategic goals of eliminating Baltic energy islands and establishing a unified European energy market.
Estonia: LNG Terminal as Cornerstone of Baltic Trading Hub
LNG as the Baltic Game-Changer
Recent advances in technology have facilitated LNG as the quickest way for many countries to diversify their supplies of natural gas. A commercially viable LNG terminal serving all three Baltic states (plus Finland) would ensure a year-round diversified supply of gas, which is the most fundamental element required for the emergence of a liquid trading hub. Such diversification of supply would also partially undercut Gazprom’s monopolist tactics, even if GIPL fails to materialize and if Inčukalns remains under Gazprom’s control. Consequently, each Baltic state has at some point sought EU support for an LNG terminal of its own.
Lithuania has made the most progress. In 2011, when Lithuania adopted the EU’s Third Energy Package, it immediately announced plans for a floating LNG terminal at Klaipėda. Lithuania moved quickly; its floating LNG regasification unit was assessed by Elering’s Pöyry report in 2012 as the most advanced10 of any LNG project in the three states.
Latvia has sought EU support for its own LNG terminal in Riga. Latvia’s main argument has been that its terminal would reduce construction costs compared with a terminal in Lithuania or Estonia, since Riga’s proximity to the Inčukalns storage facility obviates the need to build gas storage for the terminal. However, Latvia’s Baltic neighbors worry that Gazprom’s control of Inčukalns would negate the strategic value of an LNG terminal in Riga.
The Estonian government has therefore argued that public control of strategic projects like the proposed LNG terminal is crucial to strengthening Estonia’s energy security.
Accordingly, in May 2012, state-owned companies Elering and the Port of Tallinn announced a joint feasibility study for an LNG terminal at Muuga harbor in Tallinn. Elering plans to connect the proposed LNG terminal at Muuga with a sub-sea pipeline to Finland known as Balticconnector. In addition to Elering’s project at Muuga, two separate consortia are also pursuing Estonian LNG terminals linked to Balticconnector: Sillgas at Sillamäe and Alexela at Paldiski.
The Balticconnector link to Finland is crucial to the commercial viability of any Estonian LNG terminal. Estonia, with its modest natural gas demand of 0.7 bcm, is too small of a market to ensure commercial viability of an LNG terminal no matter where in the country it is located. This remains true even if an Estonian terminal is connected to the markets of Latvia and Lithuania, where demand totals only 4.8 bcm. By contrast, when Finland’s demand of 5 bcm is added to the total, the combined market of the Baltic states and Finland is 10.5 bcm, some fifteen times larger than the domestic market of Estonia alone. On the basis of a report it commissioned from the international consulting company Booz to determine which Baltic state should receive EU financial support for an LNG terminal, the European Commission concluded that a market of this size can support a regional LNG facility.11
The Booz report recommends Estonia or Finland as the location for the single LNG terminal that should receive European Commission funding as a Project of Common Interest for the entire Baltic region, given the synergies in lower construction costs and expanded gas market resulting from a joint LNG terminal-Balticconnector project. Yet in reality, the Finnish option is less likely to contribute to increasing the region’s diversity and security of supply than is an Estonian option for two reasons.
First, the Finnish option would feature a major role by Gazprom, which is fighting to retain its monopoly power in the Baltic region.
Second, as the EU’s Booz report notes, Finland has contracted with Gazprom for its natural gas supplies through 2025, which would leave no financial incentive for Balticconnector’s developers to build a pipeline from an LNG terminal in Finland to Estonia for the next 12 years.
Thus, in the near-term, Estonia provides the most attractive location for a regional LNG terminal that pursues the EU’s key goals of diversifying the Baltic states’ gas supplies and laying the foundation for market-based trading of natural gas.
Regarding the specific location of an LNG project in Estonia, the EU’s Booz report concluded, “the Sillamäe project is the weakest of the three, due to being in a very early stage of development, while the other two already have clear and well-defined projects.” The choice is therefore effectively between the latter two options.
Resisting Outside Political Interference: Ownership Structures
Ultimately, the location of the terminal is not crucial to the project’s commercial and strategic success, as long as the LNG terminal is connected to a sufficiently large regional market, meets the highest environmental and safety standards, and operates according to market rather than monopolist principles.12 A considerably more important factor is whether ownership structures will ensure the project operates according to market principles. As argued above, Gazprom has secured controlling and/or significant shares of energy companies throughout the Baltic region. These include Eesti Gaas in Estonia, Latvijas Gaze and the gas storage facility at Inčukalns in Latvia, and the Lietuvos Dujos gas company in Lithuania. Gazprom has demonstrated great skill in using its ownership stakes, coupled with powerful local business networks, to shield its monopolistic advantages against the advance of market forces. As the Booz report notes, Gazprom has used these tools to ensure that none of these three nations “has actually imposed separation between the gas supplier and TSO [transmission system operator],” which is a central goal of the EU’s Third Energy Package.
The primary benefits of spot-market pricing for natural gas are increased security of supply and lower prices. Certainly, lower prices may not be seen immediately, and may emerge only after prolonged negotiations with Gazprom, as has occurred at North Sea trading hubs in recent years. Starry-eyed predictions of a dramatic fall in natural gas prices such as those of one leading Estonian business figure that “if we finish the LNG terminal, the gas price in Estonia will drop 25–30 percent,”13 raise unrealistic expectations that could generate public disappointment with these projects. In the long run, however, indicators point more strongly towards lower prices as new infrastructure unleashes the power of market forces.
It is precisely this long-run decrease in price through market forces that is at the heart of the EU’s quest for a single European energy market. As the European Commission, in cooperation with regional governments puts in place the physical and regulatory infrastructure required to allow spot prices and gas trading hubs to emerge in the Baltic region, all EU member states will enjoy security of supply and lower prices for natural gas. At this point, the ability of a monopolist to manipulate prices and supplies will fade.
1 Алексей Грибач [Aleksei Gribach], “Зампред правления «Газпрома» Валерий Голубев: «Цена газа для Литвы не зависит от состава правления Lietuvos Dujos»” [Gazprom deputy chairman Valery Golubev: “The Price of Gas for Lithuania Does Not Depend on the Composition of the Board of Lietuvos Dujos”], Московские Новости [Moskovskie Novosti], February 11, 2012, available at www.mn.ru/business/20110211/300430801.html.
2 Ramboll Estonia, Comparison of LNG Terminals in Paldiski, Muuga, and Inkoo: Compiled Report (Tallinn: March 2010), p. 20, available at www.baltigaas.eu/?action=files.get&id=65.
3 BMI Emerging Europe Oil and Gas Insights, “Concerns High as Capex Takes a Toll on Gazprom’s Net Profits, Cashflow”, DownstreamToday.com, April 5, 2012, available at www.downstreamtoday.com/News/ArticlePrint.aspx?aid….
4 Henning Gloystein, “Analysis: Russia Takes Long View to Defend Europe Gas Supply”, Reuters , July 5, 2012, available at www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/05/us-energy-gas-e….
5 Howard Amos, “Gazprom Faces Challenges at Home and Abroad”, Moscow Times, December 26, 2012, available at www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/gazprom-facing….
6 Roman Olearchyk and Neil Buckley, “Ukraine Gas Deal Loosens Russia’s Grip”, Financial Times, January 24, 2012, available at www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f5decc00-6641-11e2-b967-00….
7 Maciej Onosko, “Poland Says LNG Terminal to Open in Mid-2014 Despite Builders’ Woes”, Reuters, July 13, 2012, available at www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/13/poland-lng-dead….
8 Analysis of Costs and Benefits of Regional Liquefied Natural Gas Solution in the East Baltic Area, Including Proposal for Location and Technical Options under the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (Milan: Booz & Co., November 2012), pp. 15–16, available at ec.europa.eu/energy/infrastructure/doc/20121123_ln….
9 Anita Brauna, “Lack of Trust Disrupts Gas Project”, re:Baltica, May 16, 2012, available at www.rebaltica.lv/en/important/a/710/lack_of_trust_….
10 Pöyry, “Liberalisation of the Estonian Gas Market” (Tallinn: 2011), p. 38, available at elering.ee/liberalisation-of-estonian-gas-market/.
11 Analysis of Costs and Benefits of Regional Liquefied Natural Gas Solution, pp. 15–16.
12 For more on this point, see Mart Raamat, “Public Debate on the Baltic LNG Terminal: A Step in the Right Direction”, ICDS, December 13, 2012, available at icds.ee/index.php?id=73&L=1&tx_ttnews%5B….
13 Sulev Vedler, “Estonia’s Battle for the Baltic LNG Terminal”, Baltic Times, May 17, 2012, available at www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/31270/.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.