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Trouble in the pipeline

Despite booming demand and record prices, Russia’s oil industry faces problems - writes The Economist.

When the price of oil reached another record on May 6th, of over $122 a barrel, analysts pointed to attacks on pipelines in Nigeria and turmoil in Iraq as the immediate causes. Even small disruptions to supplies from such places can cause the price to jump, since only Saudi Arabia has the capacity to replace the lost production, and it does not seem inclined to do so. But to understand how supplies became so scarce in the first place, one must look at the state of the oil industry in Russia, the world’s second-biggest producer.

Over the past seven years, according to Citibank, Russia accounted for 80% of the growth in oil production outside the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The increase in its output in the early part of the decade matched the growth in demand from China and India almost barrel for barrel. Yet in April, production fell for the fourth month in a row. It is now over 2% below the peak of 9.9 million barrels a day (b/d) reached in October last year. Before that, the growth in Russia’s output had been slowing steadily, suggesting that the drop is not a blip. Leonid Fedun, a vice-president of LUKoil, a local oil firm, says Russia’s production will never top 10 million b/d. The discovery that Russia can no longer be relied upon to cater to the world’s ever-increasing appetite for oil is naturally helping to propel prices to record levels.
Oil and gas have been the foundation of the regime of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s outgoing president, and are also a preoccupation of his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who was chairman of Gazprom, the state-controlled gas giant. The flow of petrodollars has created a sense of stability, masked economic woes and given Russia more clout on the world stage. Yet the malaise afflicting its most important industry is almost entirely man-made. “Geologically, there is no problem,” says Anisa Redman, an analyst at HSBC, a bank.

In principle, Russia’s bonanza could continue for years: it has the world’s seventh-biggest oil reserves, at 80 billion barrels, according to BP, a British oil firm. And oilmen reckon there are 100 billion more barrels to find — “the biggest exploration prize in the world”, in the words of Robert Dudley, the boss of TNK-BP, BP’s Russian joint venture. But Russia has regulated the industry so poorly that production is falling despite the soaring oil price. “Tax is the major impediment,” says Ms Redman. The government levies an export duty of 65% at prices over $25 a barrel. Add to that various corporate, payroll and production taxes, oilmen complain, and the state creams off as much as 92% of profits. Executives at TNK-BP have argued that rising costs across the oil industry will make many investments in Russia unprofitable unless the tax regime is changed. As it is, TNK-BP accounts for a fifth of BP’s production, but only a tenth of its profits.

The government does offer tax breaks on production from older fields. So oil firms, naturally, have been concentrating on squeezing as much oil as they can out of those. Until recently, that was an obvious priority anyway, since fields that had fallen into ruin after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s could be revived relatively easily and cheaply. By mapping existing fields more precisely, installing new pumps and injecting water and chemicals into wells to maintain pressure, private oil firms were able to raise Russia’s production from 6 million b/d to almost 10 million b/d, mainly from western Siberia. In 2003 alone, output jumped by 12%. But this strategy is now yielding diminishing returns. Fedun says the western Siberian fields have reached their natural limit. To keep production at today’s levels requires ever more investment. To get Russia’s output growing again, firms must make huge investments to develop new fields in remote provinces such as eastern Siberia and the Sakhalin region. There has been some growth in these areas, mainly thanks to the less heavily taxed projects, called “production-sharing agreements”, that the government offered briefly in the late 1990s but has since curtailed.

Strip out the production from these projects, and Russia’s output has been in fitful decline since August 2006, according to analysts at Citibank. Worse, the output from these projects declined last month too. The government’s ill concealed expropriation of various prize assets over the past few years has only added to the reluctance to embark upon big new projects. LUKoil, for example, is investing $10 billion a year, but roughly 30% of that goes into gas production, which is now more lucrative than oil, given rising domestic prices for gas and lower taxation, says Fedun. It has also been investing in refining, since the export tax on petrol and diesel is lower than that on crude oil. It is still projecting 4% annual growth in its output over the next 15 years, but the figure would be much higher if the government eased the tax burden, says Fedun. Rosneft, the state-controlled oil champion, took on so much debt buying the plum divisions of Yukos, a private firm bankrupted by the Kremlin’s zealous tax collectors, that it has little leeway for expensive new projects. Other firms are hoarding their profits and waiting for the tax regime to change.

The government did provide some $4.5 billion in tax breaks last year. But this, the oil companies argue, is barely enough to keep production stable. In his inaugural speech to the Duma as prime minister on May 8th, Putin said that taxes on the industry must be reduced. However, new fields can take a decade to develop. The Kremlin has also failed to hand out exploration rights in the Arctic—the region oilmen consider most promising. And it says that in future the foreign firms with the expertise to tap offshore fields beneath frozen seas will be limited to minority shareholdings in big projects. “Oil production will be whatever the government decides it to be,” says Fedun.

Meanwhile, Russia today is more dependent on oil and gas than it has ever been, argues Chris Weafer, a long-time Russia watcher and chief strategist at Uralsib, a bank. The share of oil and gas in Russia’s gross domestic product has more than doubled since 1999 and now stands at above 30%, according to the Institute of Economic Analysis, a think-tank. Oil and gas account for 50% of Russian budget revenues and 65% of its exports. Yet the government has put at risk the goose that lays these golden eggs.

(BBJ 9.v.08)