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Duma Rapidly Raises Oil Taxes

The State Duma passed new oil taxes Friday that will boost revenues when crude prices are high and will dent oil company earnings already this year. The new export duties, set to take effect in August, will work on a sliding scale that hands the state the lion's share of any gains in the oil price over $25 per barrel. Russia's main export crude, Urals blend, now fetches some $30 per barrel. At that price, companies would pay $7.25 per barrel in export duties, compared to $2 previously. Add an increase in the oil extraction tax taking effect Jan. 1 and other changes, and the budget would be ahead by $3.3 billion per year if oil prices stay where they are now.

The bill's rapid passage, with 395 votes for and just 12 against in all three required readings at once, surprised some analysts who had expected the tax hikes to take effect later, and led them to downgrade forecasts of oil company earnings this year.

"The impact this year on individual companies' earnings will be from 2 percent to 4 percent," said Oleg Maximov, an analyst at Troika Dialog. Earnings forecasts for 2004 would have to be cut by 4 percent for LUKoil, 3 percent to 3.5 percent for Yukos, 3 percent to 4 percent for TNK-BP, 3 percent for Sibneft and 4 percent for Surgut, he said.

The tax hikes demonstrate the strength of President Vladimir Putin, who won re-election by a landslide in March and can count on a loyal parliament to rubber-stamp key policy initiatives. Increased receipts from Russia's vast oil industry will help Putin finance planned cuts in payroll taxes aimed at creating jobs outside the resources sector and doubling the size of the economy within a decade.

Roland Nash, an analyst at Renaissance Capital, said the tax hikes would not, however, take the gloss off high oil prices and new reserves recently reported by Russian majors.

But with oil companies under close scrutiny over their past use of tax optimization schemes, Nash said the higher tax bill may not be the last word.

Yukos is fighting a $3.5 billion bill for back taxes, while its main shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky languishes in jail awaiting trial on tax evasion and fraud charges.

Oil trade sources said the tax increases would have a mixed impact on exports: "The move will not affect quantities through [pipeline monopoly] Transneft, though the economics will of course worsen," a trader said.

LUKoil, Russia's biggest oil producer, said the government should use some of the extra funds raised to improve the nation's state-run oil pipelines.

Export pipeline capacity shortfalls are costing Russia about $5 billion per year in transport costs, which curb profit more than taxes, Fedun said. Producers have to ship crude by rail to bypass bottlenecks, which is more expensive than shipping oil through the pipeline network operated by Transneft.

Russia's booming oil exports hit a new post-Soviet high of 8.95 million barrels per day in March. Of this, only 4.09 million bpd moved through Transneft, leaving an export capacity shortfall shippers have tried to plug by using railways.

Russia's rail system carried a record 2.05 million bpd in 2003, mostly to key Black Sea ports for onward export by sea. The increase in the resource extraction tax, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2005, could ruin the economics of producing for the home market, one industry executive warned.

"The internal market will overflow and prices will crash," Surgutneftegaz chief Vladimir Bogdanov told Interfax. "Last year [internal] prices fell to 1,200 rubles to 1,100 rubles per ton ($5.60 per barrel), and the hydrocarbon tax was 980 rubles plus VAT," he said. "You couldn't even make enough to cover taxes."

(The Moscow Times 26.iv.04)

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