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Gazprom Warning Has EU Worried

Amid growing tensions between the European Union and Gazprom, an EU spokesman said Thursday that the gas monopoly's warning to European countries not to block its expansion had intensified fears about growing reliance on Russian gas.

The comments continued the verbal sparring that followed reports last week that Britain was conjuring up legal barriers to block Gazprom's potential takeover of Centrica, Britain's largest gas supplier. On Tuesday, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller told European countries not to "politicize" gas supplies at a lunch with EU ambassadors in Moscow.

Gazprom's "statement gives grounds to our concerns on the growing foreign dependency of European energy supply and ... our need to diversify both the origin of our supplies and our supply routes," said Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, spokesman for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Reuters reported Thursday.

In reaction to Espuny's comments, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Thursday that the European Union needed to clarify its goals. If the EU was concerned about its increasing reliance on Gazprom, then it should figure out just how much gas it wants to buy from Russia, Kupriyanov said.

"The rest we can sell to North America and China," Kupriyanov said.

"The position expressed by the European Commission today was just the position we were responding to on Tuesday," Kupriyanov said.

Sparking fears of renewed supply disruptions to Europe, Gazprom has also threatened to introduce new price hikes for Ukraine beginning July 1.

Gazprom deputy CEO Alexander Medvedev told Ukrainian business weekly Kontrakty that Gazprom would increase gas prices for Ukraine, while leaving transit charges for routing Russian gas to Europe unchanged, Reuters reported Thursday. Concessions would be considered only if Ukraine gave up control over its pipeline network, Medvedev said.

In his comments to EU ambassadors Tuesday, Miller said, "Attempts to limit Gazprom's activities in the European market and to politicize questions of gas supplies, which in fact lie entirely within the economic realm, will not lead to good results.

"It must not be forgotten that we are actively moving into new markets, such as North America and China," Miller said, according to a version of his comments released by Gazprom.

European countries first questioned Russia's reliability as an energy partner in January, when Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine over a price dispute. The cuts precipitated gas shortfalls across Europe.

Miller met Thursday with U.S. Ambassador William Burns to discuss progress in forming a consortium to develop the Shtokman natural gas field in the Barents Sea. Gazprom is expected to announce its partners next week for developing the field, which contains 3.7 trillion cubic meters of gas and from which it intends to supply liquefied natural gas to the United States. Five companies are on the shortlist: France's Total, Norway's Statoil and Hydro, and U.S. majors ConocoPhillips and Chevron.

Last month, during a visit to Beijing, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would begin gas shipments to China by 2011, and could eventually supply the country with up to 80 billion cubic meters of gas per year.

While Gazprom's supply commitments are growing as it seeks to forge new energy deals in Europe, Asia and the United States, analysts have said the gas monopoly has ample resources to meet its obligations.

The Kremlin is eager to use Gazprom -- one of the few aces in its political arsenal -- to boost the country's prominence on the global economic arena, they said.

In recent months, Gazprom has introduced drastic price hikes to Armenia and Moldova and has said that Belarus should start paying "European" prices for gas by 2007.

Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italy's Eni energy company, told the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday that the competition for energy between Europe and booming developing economies of China and India was intensifying, The Associated Press reported.

"It is not by chance that just last week, Standard and Poor's [rating agency] confirmed that Gazprom's plan to sell up to 80 billion cubic meters of gas to China represents a serious threat to European consumers," Scaroni said.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Scaroni said he was in "no hurry" to conclude gas sales talks with Gazprom, because he was focused on striking a "good deal," Reuters reported Thursday.

Valery Nesterov, oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog, said Gazprom had enough reserves to be able to export 250 bcm per year. While Russia's domestic demand for gas is also growing by 1 percent per year, Nesterov said, increased imports from Central Asia should help.

Given that Iran has the world's second largest gas reserves after Russia, "what alternatives does Europe have?" Nesterov said.

(The Moscow Times 23.iv.06)

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