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By John Helmer in Moscow

Russia’s maiden LNG terminal became operational in late 2008, after years of controversy over seismic and ground contamination onshore; threats to whale habitats at sea and tax evasion claims in Moscow. Gazprom, Russia’s dominant gas producer and monopoly exporter, now has shareholding control of the project operator, Sakhalin Energy, replacing Royal Dutch Shell. On March 29, the first LNG cargo was loaded aboard a tanker at Prigorodnoye port, on Aniva Bay, with 145,000 cubic metres of LNG bound for the Sodegaura terminal in Tokyo Bay, and for end-users, Tokyo Gas and Tokyo Electric. When the two planned production trains of the project reach full capacity in a year’s time, the Sakhalin LNG terminal will ship 9.6 million tonnes of LNG each year. Japan will take roughly two-thirds of the LNG from Sakhalin; South Korea will take most of the remainder.

As the world’s largest exporter of natural gas by pipeline, Gazprom has made no secret of its ambition to increase its share of the global LNG market, and improve the netback margins it may earn from exported gas sales. A recent Gazprom management review pointed out that LNG earns spot-price premiums compared to fixed-price long-term natural gas supply contracts that form the bulk of Gazprom’s sales revenues. But LNG projects are capital- and engineering-intensive, and take from 5 to 10 years to start. For these reasons, Gazprom concedes that it has run into capital-raising problems for the Shtokman field, in the Barents Sea; and these in turn are delaying a clutch of schemes for gasification and shipment of LNG from northwestern Russia.

Total of France, one of the Shtokman field developers with Gazprom, had been saying that it envisaged four LNG plants to be built as Shtokman’s output capacity ramps up; the first of these was intended for a start date of 2014.

According to Gazprom’s plan for entering the US and Canadian LNG markets, first announced in 2005, this first northwestern gasification plant and loading terminal was intended for Primorsk, near St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland; its capacity was for 7.2 million tonnes per annum. A Gazprom analysis in 2005 claimed that “the most promising market in terms of LNG supplies is the USA where… LNG imports will grow tenfold (from 18 to 180 bcm/y) .” ConocoPhillips and Chevron agreed to study marketing plans for shipments to the US with Gazprom. The Russian company also negotiated potential supply deals with the Canadian LNG terminals being built in Quebec.

At the end of 2007, however, the Primorsk project was shelved, and the priority at Shtokman shifted to piping natural gas to Northern Europe from St. Petersburg, under the Baltic Sea, through the Nord Stream network. Gazprom’s chief executive, Alexey Miller, explained that dropping the so-called Baltic Sea LNG project also meant cancellation, or longterm deferral of Gazprom’s involvement with the Rabaska LNG project partners in Canada to take an equity stake in an $840mn terminal and regasification plant on the St. Lawrence River; the others in Rabaska are Gaz Metro, Enbridge, and Gaz de France. Gazprom’s decision also meant no-go for Russian gas supply to the Petro-Canada and Trans-Canada LNG terminal on the south shore of the St Lawrence River in Gros-Cacouna.

Gazprom hasn’t been so keen on breaking into the North American market, it has overlooked the LNG opportunities in Europe. To that end, it has been looking towards North Africa for developing new LNG production and shipping plants. Algeria, Egypt and Libya have been the candidate partners, while Gazprom has also been negotiating with the Nigerian government to develop a new Gazprom-developed gasfield, linked by trans-Saharan pipeline to an LNG plant and shipping terminal on the Mediterranean coast. US pressure on Algeria to stay clear of this Russian scheme, and other Gazprom proposals, has encouraged Gazprom to negotiate instead wioth Libya and Egypt.

In mid-2008, Gazprom moved closer to the US market, but not in Canada. Instead, it signed a deal to investigate the feasibility of partnering with the Venezuelan government for an LNG plant at a new Gazprom-developed field in the Caribbean. This is being explored in the Blanquilla Est and Tortuga zones. With a $6 billion price tag, the others signing on in the project are Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (60%), Eni (10%), Petronas (10%), and Energias de Portugal (5%).

At home again, Gazprom deputy CEO for exports, Alexander Medvedev, and the head of the company’s oil and gas production, Vasily Podyuk, also unveiled details of the company’s hope to build a second LNG plant and shipping terminal for the Asian and Pacific trade. This, they said, is to be located in the Vladivostok area, on the mainland coast. Its feedstock, the Gazprom officials said in September, will be piped from the Sakhalin-1 field, in northern Sakhalin; that field is operated by ExxonMobil. The gas will reach Vladivostok through a 25 bcm per year pipeline from Khabarovsk, which is already linked to Sakhalin Island. Initially, around 2011, Gazprom now says, Vladivostok will be supplied from Sakhalin 1, and later by Sakhalin 3 volumes, which Podyuk estimates at peak of around 24.8 bcm (by 2020).

The plan contains the still controversial proviso obliging ExxonMobil and Russian oil producer Rosneft to accept Gazprom’s dominance as the dominant gas exporter to Asia from all the Sakhalin fields.

This year, despite the slowdown in Gazprom’s new project investments, drawing-board planning for Russia’s first newbuild LNG carrier has begun at a St. Petersburg vessel design bureau. For the moment, however, there is no certainty it will be built; no contract or money for the shipyard; and no LNG cargo to load.

Vladimir Spiridopoulo, general director of Severnoye PKB, a leading Russian ship designer, said it has agreed with the French designer GTT for LNG vessel technology to help prepare a feasibility plan for the newbuild project. In parallel, he said, Sovcomflot, the state-owned tanker operator, is considering commissioning a single LNG carrier from the Admiralty Shipyard of St. Petersburg. With capacity for 80,000 cubic metres, and at an estimated cost of up to $250 million, Admiralty and Sovcomflot have been discussing the project for 18 months, but no commitment has been reached. Sovcomflot already operates 6 LNG carriers, all of them built outside Russia — South Korea, Japan, and Sweden. They are currently loading Gazprom LNG at Sakhalin.

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