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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Disquieting Specter of a Copycat Cartel

There has been increasing speculation over the past month that the April 9 meeting of the Forum of Gas Exporting Countries in Doha would see the creation of a gas OPEC, an idea that the Kremlin has often dismissed when it was raised in the past. But comments by President Vladimir Putin in mid-March have analysts believing that Russia, Venezuela, Algeria, Qatar and (maybe) Iran will establish something like an "Organization of Gas Exporting Countries" within the larger gas forum, which was founded in 2001.

The prospect of the new organization raises questions about the effect it could have on major gas consuming nations, the members of the cartel themselves and global energy markets in general. These questions could become very important, very soon.

People involved with the Russian gas sector, both within and outside the government, have maintained that a gas OPEC would pose no serious threat to global consumers. Some, like Industry and Energy Deuty Minister Andrei Reus, argue that the new organization won't even be a cartel. Others, like Vladimir Milov, founder of the Moscow-based Institute for Energy Policy, maintain that gas prices cannot be influenced globally because gas is supplied via pipeline networks and gas markets lack the flexibility that the oil market enjoys.

But Western businessmen are skeptical. Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italian energy giant Eni, points out that Russia accounts for about half and Algeria another quarter of Europe's gas imports, and that any tie-up to manipulate prices is bound to have an effect.

Which point of view is closer to reality? It does appear that European policymakers have good cause to worry. According to estimates by Oil and Gas Journal and World Oil, the five potential cartel members control from 3,840 trillion to 4,541 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves and account for nearly 65 percent of the world total. The corresponding figure for oil deposits controlled by 13 OPEC members in 1981 was just 53 percent. Moreover, the reserves of the next five biggest gas-producing countries -- Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United States, Nigeria and Iraq -- account for only around 15 percent of the global total.

We should also keep in mind that OPEC was founded in 1960 with five members but quickly enlarged as the benefits of membership grew to eight by the end of 1962 and 13 by 1975. Another thing to mention is the political nature of OPEC's economic decisions, first when world oil prices jumped by 470 percent from 1972 to 1975, and then when they rose by 263 percent from 1979 to 1981. In 1973, the price was increased and an oil embargo introduced because of Arab-Israeli tensions preceding the Yom Kippur War. In 1980, the main trigger was the Islamic revolution in Iran. Discontent in Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and Arab states with U.S. and EU policy is growing and could provide the same kind of justification for using gas exports as a weapon in the same manner that oil was used by OPEC in the 1970s.

There is no doubt that the global gas industry differs significantly from the global trade in oil. It is not nearly as flexible, with only 29 percent of gas supplied to foreign customers in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and not as "international," in the sense that 74 percent of gas produced in the world is used by the producer countries themselves. There is room, nevertheless, for change. Japan currently covers its gas needs exclusively with LNG supplies; the share of LNG in supply to South Korea is almost 80 percent, and LNG is projected to become the main form of U.S. gas imports by 2010.

There is also the likelihood that producing countries will manage to reduce their domestic gas consumption dramatically. Russia, the world's biggest gas exporter, consumes more gas domestically than Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy combined, despite the fact that its GDP is a mere one-thirteenth of the total for those countries. Given the fact that the volume of export contracts has seen a steady increase in recent years, finding ways to increase fuel efficiency appears to be the only way to meet rising export obligations. It is also likely that new gas fields in Venezuela and Iran, which today do not sell their gas abroad (Iran is actually a net importer of gas) will soon come on-line, meaning an explosion in the export potential for members of OGEC (or whatever name the new organization would have).

None of this would completely eliminate the differences between the global oil market and gas market, but it may lay the groundwork for the introduction of a relatively free exchange of gas. Russia provided an example of this by moving into the LNG export market even though it doesn't possess any liquefaction facilities or tankers equipped to transport LNG. In early 2005, Gazprom began supplying LNG to North America, for which it traded regular natural gas destined for European markets. This is a prime example of how a more globalized gas market could work, thus making it possible to establish unified market prices for gas.

The creation of an international gas cartel is only likely to push this process forward. Today, the world is on the brink of greater diversification of energy resources, and both LNG and ethanol will soon emerge as major alternatives to crude oil. Official projections from China are that its imports of LNG will reach 23 million tons by 2015, compared to shipments of less than 960,000 tons in 2006. Currently there is only one LNG terminal in the country, close to the Shenzhen industrial zone, but nine additional facilities will be opened over the next seven years. In Europe the share of LNG in total gas imports may rise from today's 4 percent to more than 25 percent by 2020. The prospective members of the gas OPEC would be in place to be the main beneficiaries of continuing changes in the global energy balance, and it is unlikely that they would pass up the chance.

Does all of this mean that the new organization linking gas exporters could become as problematic for major energy consuming countries -- most of which are in the West -- as OPEC has proven to be? The answer is very likely to be yes.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was an opponent for the Western world. But its consciousness of itself as a superpower was a major factor in keeping it from joining OPEC, which remained an organization of developing petro-states. Today, Russia only pretends to be a global powerhouse while functioning as a private corporation of Kremlin bureaucracy. When Putin says that there is nothing political in recent price hikes for Georgia, Azerbaijan or Belarus, he might be telling the truth. In its quest for greater profits, Russia today may well join the ranks of an alliance comprised largely of rogue states with an openly anti-Western orientation. This is the most disturbing element in the prospect of the creation of a gas OPEC.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is a professor of economics at the Higher School of Economics, director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies and editor of the Russian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.