Last week saw Japan’s Mitsui and Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation agree to buy a 10% stake in Novatek’s Arctic LNG (liquefied natural gas) 2 project for an officially undisclosed price, although Russia’s President Vladimir Putin independently stated that the investment would be around US$3 billion. The fact that Putin himself commented on the deal underlines how important the exploration and development of the Arctic region is for the Russian state as a source of potentially vast new oil and gas resources and the accretion of further geopolitical influence, akin to the game-changing shale industry for the U.S..
Russia’s current development of the Arctic region is centred around the Yamal Peninsula and led principally Novatek but further developments are in the offing from Gazprom and Gazprom Neft, even in the face of current and future U.S. sanctions.
Novatek’s main Arctic project, the Yamal LNG (unofficially referred to as ‘Arctic 1’) last week announced that it produced 9.0 million tons of LNG and 0.6 million tons of stable gas condensate in the first half of this year, with all three LNG trains running above the 5.5 million tons per annum (mtpa) nameplate capacity over that period.
This resulted in 126 LNG tanker shipments being dispatched in the six month period via trans-shipment from the ice-class LNG carriers to conventional vessels in Norway and delivered onto the global markets, mostly to Russia’s key target markets in Asia.
Overall, the Yamal LNG project consists of a 17.4 mtpa natural gas liquefaction plant comprised of three LNG trains of 5.5 mtpa each and one LNG train of 900 thousand tons per annum, utilising the hydrocarbon resources of the South-Tambeyskoye field in the Russian Arctic.
“Novatek is the exception in terms of global LNG companies in that it has always been very accurate in terms of delivering its projects on time and on budget, as it is a very Western-style operation run by a very capable CEO, Leonid Mikhleson,” Andrey Polischuk, senior oil and gas analyst from Raiffeisenbank, in Moscow, told OilPrice.com last week.
“Additionally supportive of success for further developments is that the Arctic is an absolute priority for the government, aimed at bringing Russia’s LNG standing in the world market into line with its status as a global gas superpower, as its LNG capability has always been way behind what its gas production power would warrant,” he said.
In this context, U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia took over Crimea in 2014 only made Putin more determined that the Arctic LNG program would not fail. Moscow not only initially bankrolled Yamal LNG from the beginning with money directly from the state budget but also later in 2014 supported it again by selling bonds in Yamal LNG (the program began on 24 November 2015, with a RUB75 billion 15-year issue). It further provided RUB150 billion of additional backstop funding from the National Welfare Fund. After that, and months of wrangling, April 2016 saw two Chinese state banks agree to provide US$12 billion to the Yamal LNG project in euros and roubles. The project was helped by a tumble in the rouble in late 2014 that effectively cut the cost of Russia-sourced equipment and labour at a key moment in the construction.
Having insulated itself from U.S. financial sanctions, Novatek is busy doing the same for its technology requirements. Novatek has already indigenised as much of the technology and machinery involved with the Yamal LNG project as it can and last year received a federal patent for its ‘Arctic Cascade’ natural gas liquefaction technology. This is based on a two-stage liquefaction process that capitalises on the colder ambient temperature in the Arctic climate to maximise energy efficiency during the liquefaction process and is the first patented liquefaction technology using equipment produced only by Russian manufacturers.
The overall goal of Novatek, as the company itself has stated more than once, is to localise the fabrication and construction of LNG trains and modules to decrease the overall cost of liquefaction and develop a technological base within Russia, so that the Arctic LNG operations are not subject to the whims of other countries and future sanctions.
Given this backdrop, Novatek’s second Yamal LNG project – officially ‘Arctic LNG 2’ – aims for three LNG trains of 6.6 mtpa each, based around the oil and gas resources of the Utrenneye field, which has at least 1,138 billion cubic metres of natural gas and 57 million tons of liquids in reserves. Novatek plans to commission the first train in 2023, the second train in 2024, and the third train in 2025, before reaching full capacity in 2026.
To this end, it has already secured three other partners in the venture, aside from the Japanese. Two are from the key target market of China itself – the China National Petroleum Corporation subsidiary China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation, with a joint 10% stake – and France’s supermajor, Total, also with 10%. Novatek has said that it plans to keep 60% for itself, with the remaining 10% likely to go shortly to Saudi Aramco, OilPrice.com understands form various Russia analysts. Novatek will make the final investment decision on the project in the third quarter of this year.
In the same vein, Russian gas giant, Gazprom, recently announced the full scale development of the giant Kharasavey gas field in the Bovanenkovo production zone on the northern Yamal peninsula. This is part of the company’s continuing shift in its production base northward, in line with Russia’s other major tangential strategy of building out the gas capacity of Yamal to compensate for reserves depletion in West Siberia. Kharasavey is estimated to hold 2 trillion cubic metres of gas and is set to produce first gas in 2023 with plateau output of 32 billion cubic metres per year. Given the outlook for gas demand in the key markets of Europe and Asia, and the geopolitical ramifications of being the major gas supplier to these regions, Gazprom’s oil producing subsidiary, Gazprom Neft, is also looking at producing its own LNG from its Arctic operations.
Monetising its gas resources in the Arctic would be a relatively straightforward task for Gazprom Neft, allowing the company to recoup more of the RUB400 billion (US$6.4 billion) that it plans to spend on developing its Novoportovskoye field (estimated to have recoverable reserves of more than 320 bcm of gas) over the next five years earlier than would otherwise be the case. Part of this development cost is planned to go on the construction of a key gas pipeline to run from Novy Port across the Gulf of Ob to Yamburg, which will carry at least 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year from the Novoportovskoye oil and gas field into Gazprom’s main gas delivery system.
This infrastructure is also likely to be utilised by the third of Novatek’s own Arctic projects – Ob LNG – which commenced development in June. Based on the resources of the Verkhnetiuteyskoye and Zapadno-Seyakhinskoye fields, located in the central part of the Yamal Peninsula, the two fields hold a total of 157 billion cubic metres of natural gas and the projected new plant will produce up to 4.8 mtpa of LNG. The main plant, built exclusively with Russian-made technology in Sabetta, will cost US$5 billion and is set to come into operation in 2023.
That a key point in adding such production from this the Arctic region is to dominate the Asian markets, particularly that of China, was tacitly acknowledged by Novatek’s Mikhelson recently when he stated that he expected at least 80% of Novatek’s future LNG production to go to the Asian market. This was further highlighted by the fact that Novatek is moving forward with the trans-shipment LNG facility on the Russian Far East coast in Kamchatka, Anna Belova, senior Russia and FSU oil and gas analyst for GlobalData, in New York, told OilPrice.com.
Even more tellingly, perhaps, Mikhelson added that future sales to China denominated in renminbi is under consideration. This is in line with his recent comment that U.S. sanctions accelerate the process of Russia trying to switch away from U.S. dollar-centric oil and gas trading and the damage from potential sanctions that go with it. “This has been discussed for a while with Russia’s largest trading partners such as India and China, and even Arab countries are starting to think about it… If they do create difficulties for our Russian banks the all we have to do is replace dollars,” he said. “The trade war between the U.S. and China will only accelerate the process,” he added.
Such a strategy was tested in 2014 when Gazprom Neft tried trading cargoes of crude oil in Chinese yuan and rubles with China and Europe.
“This idea of an alternate principal trading currency for oil and gas, away from the U.S. dollar was also discussed for the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] countries, and was work-shopped again recently by Iran, Iraq, Russia, and China, and China’s launch of the yuan-denominated Shanghai International Exchange can be seen as a move in this direction,” Mehrdad Emadi, head of risk analysis and energy derivatives markets consultancy, Betamatrix, in London, told OilPrice.com.
“The more the U.S. uses the US dollar sanction against major suppliers in the oil market, like Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, and major buyers, like China, then the more momentum will build to replace the oil market with a new currency benchmark,” he concluded.