Top gas producers tackle global glut

Dec. 11, 2009 at 11:43 AM
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DOHA, Qatar, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- The world's top natural gas producers meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar have agreed to strengthen their emergent organization and work together to push up tumbling prices caused by an unprecedented global gas glut.

But there's still no sign that they will coalesce into a price-manipulating cartel with the market muscle of the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that the three nations with the world's three biggest reserves of gas -- Russia, Iran and Qatar -- are pushing for.

Talk of a possible major gas monopoly, dubbed a "gas OPEC," has unnerved Europe, which gets much of its gas from Russia. The 27-member European Union imports 61 percent of its gas needs, 42 percent from Russia.

There are concerns too that a resurgent Russia, now vying with Saudi Arabia as the world's leading oil producer, is using its oil and gas exports as leverage to reassert its dominance over the states that comprised the former Soviet bloc.

The 15-member Gas Exporting Countries Forum agreed at its Dec. 9-10 ministerial meeting in Doha, the ninth since the organization was formed in 2001, that it needs to expand strategic cooperation.

The group also elected its first secretary-general, energy executive Leonid Bokhanovsky, vice president of Russian pipeline builder OAO Stroytansgaz, further cementing its organizational structure from its informal beginnings and adding more cohesion to its decision-making process.

According to Forbes, the group of gas producers "is in many ways similar to OPEC in its early days. … OPEC members cooperated to use their market power and as a result extracted hundreds of thousands of billions of dollars of 'cartel profits' from consuming countries."

"The Gas Exporting Countries Forum should function like OPEC to defend the interests of its members," declared Algerian Energy Minister Chakib Khelil.

He urged forum members to "reach agreement on a strategy for obtaining a fair price for gas."

Forbes observed that "such words cause alarm, especially in European and Asian countries, many of which are highly dependent on gas imports from GECF member states."

The Paris-based International Energy Agency warned in November of an "acute glut" of natural gas across the world in the coming years because of rising production in the United States and Canada.

Much of this is due to new technologies that allow the large-scale production of "shale gas," an unconventional natural gas, particularly in the United States, which had been expected to become a major gas importer.

This, Forbes noted, would "turn the United States into a net exporter and thus offset a GECF-led natural gas cartel."

Still, opinion remains divided over the likelihood that a Gas OPEC will emerge.

U.S.-based global security consultancy Stratfor said in an analysis that the prospect of a cartel being able to affect gas prices is remote because natural gas is a very different energy commodity than oil.

"Gas is not transported -- or priced -- like oil" and "cannot simply be poured into a container and sent to market," it said. "It has to be shipped and distributed via multibillion-dollar dedicated pipeline infrastructures that require years to build.

"Because the infrastructure is so tightly linked to the market, natural gas prices almost exclusively are priced only within that network, not via the global market as oil is."

Most GECF members "are wholly dependent upon foreign investment for their natural gas industries … and are very unlikely to actually take steps to hurt their customers," Stratfor added.

"Keeping those investments flowing and those facilities operational requires partnering with customers, not plotting against them."

Forbes sees it differently. "Despite potentially mitigating factors, the economic risk of an emerging natural gas cartel remains since market structures change rapidly and gas exporters are determined to cooperate," it noted.

"In the early 1960s, OPEC was dismissed as an ineffective forum. But it managed to harm the world economy and extracted enormous 'cartel profits' at the expense of consumers only a decade later.

"Today, policymakers need to take the scenario of a natural gas cartel seriously. It could cost consumers dearly and hurt the world economy if we were unprepared."

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