A Baltic Sea oil terminal opened in March by President-Elect Vladimir Putin to boost Russia’s direct access to international markets may weaken the country’s crude price in northern Europe compared with the south.
Urals crude in Northwest Europe was $1.13 a barrel less than in the Mediterranean yesterday after the start of operations at the Ust-Luga terminal, the most since July, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with a 20-cent premium at the start of March and an average discount of six cents in the past year.
Russia wants to elevate the role of Urals, which has high-sulfur qualities similar to Middle Eastern crudes, as an international benchmark. Building the new export terminal on its own territory may help the country allay concern that Urals supply is vulnerable to disruption because of political disputes with transit countries such as Belarus and Ukraine and the tanker chokepoint of the Bosphorus Straits near Istanbul.
"Moscow will gain an important tool in securing control of crude shipments going to central and northern Europe, and will no longer have to deal with potential unilateral hikes in transit fees by Minsk and Kiev," David Wech, an analyst at JBC Energy GmbH in Vienna, said by e-mail, referring to the capitals of Russia's western neighbors.
TNK-BP, the Russian oil producer that accounts for 40 percent of BP Plc's crude production, expects to send some oil intended for the Black Sea to the Ust-Luga terminal instead, Jonathan Kollek, the company's senior vice president for sales, trading and logistics, said February 21 in London. Russia exported about 28 percent of its crude via the Baltic last year. A barrel of Urals cost $118.47 in Northwest Europe on April 4.
"You've got another point of export," Ian Taylor, chief executive officer of Vitol Group, the world's biggest independent oil trader, said in a March 21 interview in London. "In the Commonwealth of Independent States, the more points of export the better."
Moscow-based Summa Group and Vitol are investing in a $1 billion storage facility and terminal in Rotterdam, Europe's largest port, which will make it easier for daily price discovery of Urals, Russia's main export crude.
"The market will decide" whether the $1 billion dollar terminal, which is expected to open by 2015, achieves Russia's goal of turning Urals into a benchmark grade, Jorge Montepeque, Global Director of Markets and Pricing at oil pricing and information company Platts, said in London on February 20.
Platts has proposed to reflect cargoes shipped from Ust- Luga in its Rotterdam Urals price assessment as of April 16 in addition to Primorsk, which is Russia's main Baltic port, and Gdansk, it said in a note to its subscribers on March 28.
The difference between Mediterranean and north European prices for Urals may stabilize at a discount of about 40 cents, according to the average estimate of five traders of the crude and analysts in a Bloomberg survey. The 600,000-barrel-a-day Ust-Luga terminal will probably take oil away from Black Sea ports, thus maintaining the price gap between northern and southern markets, according to consultant KBC Energy Economics.
"Urals Med in the short term may get tighter," compared with Northwest Europe, said Maria Gradobitova, a senior analyst at KBC in Walton-on-Thames, England. "The arbitrage opening could reach 50 cents before you might see shipments getting diverted back to the Mediterranean."
OAO Transneft will halt exports via the Polish port of Gdansk when the pipeline to Ust-Luga, known as the Baltic Pipeline System-2, begins regular operations, Igor Dyomin, a spokesman for Russia's monopoly pipeline operator, said by telephone from Moscow Feb. 21. Putin pressed a button to symbolize the start of the BPS-2 link at a ceremony on March 23.
The facility is not without its critics. Katrin Goering- Eckhardt, a vice president of Germany's Bundestag and member of the Green Party, sent a letter to Putin asking him to postpone operations at the port to allow for an environmental review, Moscow daily Vedomosti reported April 4.
Russia will ship nine cargoes of 100,000 metric tons each from Ust-Luga in April, according to a loading program obtained by Bloomberg News. Loading programs are monthly schedules of shipments compiled by field operators to allow buyers and sellers to plan their supply and trading activities. Combined with Primorsk, Russia plans to export 7.205 million tons of Urals via the two Baltic ports this month, up from 6 million last month.
"We expect that the high export levels will be difficult for Russia to maintain, especially given only marginal supply growth expected over the year and high global crude prices leading to higher refinery utilization rates in the country," Johannes Benigni, managing director at Vienna-based JBC Energy, said in an April 4 report.
The BPS-2 will transport 15 million to 20 million metric tons this year, Dyomin said. It may take as much as 5 million tons, or 36.7 million barrels, away from Novorossiysk on the Black Sea and a similar quantity away from Primorsk, the Transneft spokesman said. The remainder will come from increased Russian crude production.
Primorsk, on the Baltic Sea, exported 70 million tons of oil last year, according to Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port, the owner. The company's Black Sea port, which is called Novorossiysk, exported 43 million tons.
TNK-BP estimates by 2015 Russia will have 109 million tons of annual spare export capacity because of new Transneft projects, including the second phase of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, or ESPO-2, according to Kollek.
Russia, the world's largest energy exporter, has made diversification of its export routes a priority under Putin, who will return for a third term as Russian president on May 7 after winning the March election.
OAO Gazprom, Russia's natural gas export monopoly, has twice in the past six years cut gas deliveries to Ukraine on New Year's Day because of pricing disputes while Transneft halted oil deliveries to Belarus for most of January 2011, rerouting about 650,000 tons.
The $3.3 billion BPS-2 pipeline is part of Russia's strategy to develop direct connections to its main customers in Europe. Separately, Gazprom opened the first spur of the $10 billion Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic to Germany in November.
"The development is also likely to see, at least in the short term, a tighter Mediterranean market and growing importance of Caspian crude oil in the Mediterranean and Central Europe," Gradobitova said.