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Gazprom Unveils Shtokman Shortlist

Gazprom on Friday narrowed down the list of potential partners for developing the Shtokman gas field to five companies: Statoil and Hydro of Norway; France's Total; and Chevron and ConocoPhillips of the United States.

The gas extracted at the giant Arctic gas field -- which has reserves that could meet the world's demand for more than a year -- will be turned into liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and shipped primarily to North America.

Gazprom will need another four to six months to pick two or three finalists from the list, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller told reporters. The winners will then form a consortium, in which Gazprom is to have a 51 percent stake.

"So far, there hasn't been any decision on how to divide up the shares among foreign participants," Miller said. He also said that Shtokman could be developed under a production sharing agreement, but that the decision on the project status had not been made.

Other foreign contenders to work on the Shtokman project included Sumitomo and Mitsui of Japan, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil.

The main criteria for selection of the shortlisted companies were past experience with LNG and marketing capacities, Miller said, and not the ability to provide funding for the project, which could end up costing as much as $15 billion. Miller did not provide more details on why individual companies had been selected.

"I don't think Gazprom makes decisions based only on the sound of a company's name," said Kakha Kiknavelidze, an oil and gas analyst with Brunswick UBS.

But without more information, he added, it was hard to say why Total stayed on the list and Shell was dropped.

"Perhaps there was less interest expressed by the other companies," Kiknavelidze said.

It was no coincidence that state-controlled Gazprom made the announcement while President Vladimir Putin was visiting the United States, where he met with top executives from Exxon, Conoco and Chevron on Friday.

"Russia has concluded energy cooperation deals with Europe, China, India and Japan -- and the one with the U.S. was a blatant omission," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank.

"Sixty years after the North Atlantic convoys helped sustain Russia through World War II, Russia is now about to repay the favor with a reversal of the convoys carrying Russian energy to help sustain the U.S. economy."

Most market watchers said that the choice of companies made perfect sense, as the two Norwegian companies had vast experience in working on fields in hostile environments, while Chevron and Conoco would help market the gas at home.

The choice of Total is not too surprising, either, as it offers balance to the shortlisted firms and makes political as well as economic sense, analysts said.

"It keeps everybody in," said Stephen O'Sullivan, oil and gas analyst at UFG.

"Total is getting compensated for failures in the past," said Steven Dashevsky, head of research at brokerage Aton.

The French company backed out of plans to buy a 25 percent stake in Novatek, after Russia's second-largest natural gas company launched an IPO in London against Total's wishes this summer. Furthermore, Total is "very active" in LNG projects around the world, including in Brunei, Qatar and Nigeria, said O'Sullivan.

Analysts agreed that the final consortium would probably have one U.S. partner, one from Norway and Total in order to keep the balance between American and European companies.

O'Sullivan suggested that the two U.S. companies and the two Norwegian firms could team up to strengthen their positions.

On Friday, Statoil chief executive Helge Lund told Bloomberg that his company might consider a joint bid with Hydro.

As for Exxon's absence from the shortlist, analysts were divided, however.

One analyst suggested that Exxon did not make the shortlist because two years ago it was ready to buy a stake in Yukos without first getting permission from the state.

"According to Russian standards, it was not politically correct to walk over the heads of the authorities in the acquisition of a priority asset," he said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

"In any big project in a developing market, you first coordinate the agreement with the authorities. ... I don't think Exxon will get anything beyond their current involvement in the Sakhalin-1 project."

Weafer disagreed, saying that Exxon could simply be biding its time.

"They haven't snubbed Shell or Exxon," he said.

"All the indications are that Exxon is holding out for a major oil deal. We should see it getting involved in a big oil project in East Siberia -- probably with Rosneft -- that will justify the construction of the Murmansk pipeline that will eventually deliver 1 million barrels of oil a day to the U.S. market," Weafer said.

As for Shell, experts pointed out that it was already leading the $20 billion Sakhalin-2 LNG project and had agreed to a share swap with Gazprom. The gas giant will get 25 percent in Sakhalin-2, while Shell will receive a 50 percent stake in Gazprom's Siberian Zapolyarnoye gas field.

"A blueprint appears to be emerging for giant projects controlled by state companies, whereby the state will retain overall control and then co-investors will be companies that either have technical expertise or will help with end marketing," Weafer said. "It is a very good model."

Shtokman, located under the Barents Sea, contains proven reserves of 3.2 trillion cubic meters of gas and 31 million tons of gas condensate. The project's costs, which include the construction of special LNG facilities, are estimated at up to $15 billion.

The project is expected to begin deliveries of commercial gas in 2010. Once operational, the project could be extracting gas for some 50 years.

(The Moscow Times 19.ix.05)

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