EU Urges Clarity on Gas Cartel

BRUSSELS -- The European Union's energy chief Thursday called for Russia and Algeria to clarify their cooperation plans, expressing concern that the bloc's top gas suppliers might create a cartel that could hurt EU consumers.

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said the two countries, which together supply 35 percent of the 27-nation bloc's natural gas, could exploit their position through a partnership deal that could lead to price fixing.

"It's nothing that requires immediate action, but it is also fair from my side to say where I see the worry," Piebalgs said.

"If I imagine that there is some agreement on limiting production or price, there is inevitably [an effect] on consumers," he said.

Algeria's Energy and Mines Minister Chakib Khelil said after talks with his Russian counterpart Viktor Khristenko last Saturday that it would be premature to talk about a body for the gas industry resembling the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC.

"It is too early and too complicated to talk about the creation of a 'Gas OPEC' because the oil market is different from the gas market," Khelil told reporters in Algiers.

Piebalgs said he wanted more information.

"What are the processes that are embarked on and what could be the consequences for consumers in the European Union?" he asked. "At this stage we have not received any information, but I am also not saying we should make panic."

Russian officials have repeatedly denied that they have any plan to form a cartel, saying it would be undesirable and impractical, while Russia's gas export monopoly Gazprom says its long-term contracts would make such a suggestion implausible.

Piebalgs said he would bring up the issue with both countries in already-established dialogue forums. The EU, which receives 25 percent of its gas from Gazprom, sees Algeria as key for gas supply diversification. Algeria has a 10 percent share of Europe's gas market.