One thing highly unlikely to change under Dmitri Medvedev is Moscow's hard-line energy policy. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that Russia wants the West to build pipelines that go around it.
As evidence, take a look at two disputes: Chevron's long-frustrated efforts to ship more oil through a pipeline that technically was built exclusively for its use; and Gazprom's cutoff of natural gas today to Ukraine.
The California company is nothing if not patient and persistent. It's hard to believe that its travails with Moscow have gone on for almost two decades, but it was 1989 when the California-based company first laid eyes on the Tengiz oilfield. The western Kazakhstan field, right next to the Caspian, contains 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves or more, a considerable volume in an industry that regards a 1-billion-barrel field as a supergiant. The final contract awarding Chevron 50% of the field was signed in 1993.
Since then, it's been one stumbling block after another from Russia, which has seen it in its interest to keep Tengiz bottled up. It took eight years before a long-planned dedicated pipeline from the field -- known as CPC -- finally was running. But, while CPC has been producing 320,000 barrels of oil a day, Chevron has always seen Tengiz as at minimum a 700,000-barrel-a-day field, and more reasonably capable of 1 million barrels a day of exports. As of later this year, Chevron is ready for a mid-range production increase to 540,000 barrels a day.
Only, that would require an expansion of CPC, and Russia has blocked it. As the years have gone by, Transneft, which does the negotiating for the Kremlin, has seemed always to have a new demand. When that's met, there's been another. This time, it seems to want Chevron and its partners to finance another pipeline -- a line connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas overland from Bulgaria to Greece.
This isn't public, but Transneft is currently circulating a compromise. People who have received the Transneft memo tell me that Russia is willing to allow Chevron and its partners to raise exports through a process called "de-bottlenecking," which basically means getting the kinks out. The companies could modernize existing pumping stations, but add no new ones. Exports would rise from the current 28 million tons a year to around 38 million tons; that's far less than the 67 million tons a year that the companies seek.
There's no word on whether Chevron and its partners will accept -- they have 30 days to answer -- but it seems unlikely they'll reject it. But what is the ultimate impact of Russia's intransigence? Well, what happens when water is blocked from one drain? It seeks an outlet elsewhere. So look for a greater push for a trans-Caspian oil pipeline from Central Asia to Baku.
Meanwhile, Russia's Gazprom today cut off some 35% of its natural gas supplies for Ukraine. It says its neighbor owes some $600 million for exports this year. Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko disputes the figures. Given that the accounting books are closed to the public, and are disputed by those to whom they are open, there's no way of knowing for sure.
But, while they talk, both Gazprom and Ukraine say their dispute won't again disrupt supplies to Europe (Europe receives more than 30% of its natural gas from Russia, and most of that flows through Ukraine), as they did in 2006. I wouldn't bet on that. Jitteriness in Europe is Ukraine's best leverage over Gazprom.
That's the point of a current natural gas pipeline competition between Russia and the West. Because of its repeated conflicts with Ukraine and others, Russia wants to build a completely new set of natural gas pipelines to supply Europe. But such deepened reliance on Russia makes Europe and the U.S. nervous. So they have mounted a plan to diversify the European supply by going completely around Russia.
Gazprom's latest cutoff will only redouble the European-U.S. effort.