US President Donald Trump's new powers to put sanctions on companies involved in Russian energy export pipelines could have major consequences for projects like the 55 Bcm/year Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany. Even just the threat of sanctions could be enough to raise costs, cause delays or even halt a project, depending on how the companies involved react.
With Europe buying around a third of its gas by pipeline from Russia, any sanctions could be hugely significant for the wider European gas markets. Europe has courted the US as a potential new supply source of LNG, but it will fight any direct US interference in access to Russian gas supplies.
S&P Global Platts editors discuss how this US policy is changing the risk profile for European energy companies.
Related special report: US LNG vs pipeline gas: European market share war?
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SH: Hello, and welcome to this Brussels to Beijing policy podcast from S&P Global Platts. I’m Siobhan Hall, Platts’ expert on European Union energy policy based in Brussels.
The big news is that the president of the United States now has the power – but not the obligation – to impose sanctions on companies involved in Russian energy export pipelines. With Europe buying around a third of its gas by pipeline from Russia, this could be hugely significant for European gas markets.
What does it mean for specific projects like Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany? And could the higher risk now attached to Russian pipeline gas boost demand in Europe for US LNG as an alternative?
Joining me to answer these questions are senior gas writer Stuart Elliott in London and bureau chief Nadia Rodova in Moscow. So Stuart, who’s now at risk of being targeted by the US?
SE: Well, Siobhan, the most obvious are the companies involved in Nord Stream 2, if they honor their commitments. So that would include Allseas, which is booked to lay the pipe next year, as well as the companies that have agreed to help finance it, which is Shell, Uniper, Wintershall, Engie and OMV.
NR: But the language in the US sanctions law is very broad, so anyone providing anything above quite low monetary values to any Russian export pipeline is now at risk.
SH: Right, so the law is not retrospective, it only applies to actions taken after it came into force last week. Stuart, what kind of sanctions are companies at risk of?
SE: Well, they are at risk of being shut out of the US economic system in one way or another. So that could range from being blocked from US government procurement contracts all the way to having their US assets frozen.
NR: So the potential penalties are varied, and it will all come down to how much risk companies are willing take on.
SH: Right, so this is going to be all about risk assessment. Nadia, what’s the reaction in Russia?
NR: Well, Siobhan, the key problem is that any company in any project could be targeted at any time. That’s going to create more uncertainty and is likely to raise the cost of capital for all projects, even if the US president never actually imposes any sanctions. We could see European companies deciding to avoid investing in or selling to Russian projects, just to be on the safe side.
SE: Yes, that’s a key point - that the risk is there even if the US president never actually imposes sanctions. So companies will have to decide how much risk they are willing to bear when considering whether to get – or stay -- involved in Russian export pipelines.
SH: Yes, and what’s interesting is that these powers are specifically at the discretion of the US president, so it will be very important who the president is. I asked our senior editor in Washington, Brian Scheid, how the current US president, Donald Trump, has reacted.
BS: I don’t expect a public declaration where he says he’s not going to target European companies…but… Trump clearly hates this bill so it’s a good bet that any chance he has not to enforce it will be taken.
SH: So while Trump is president, the risk of specific sanctions seems very low. Stuart, how have the European companies involved in Nord Stream 2 reacted?
SE: Well, Siobhan, they have reacted angrily to the idea of the US interfering in European energy policy, with some saying that Europe must not let itself become a geopolitical football. They say sanctions must not be misused to push through greater use of US LNG in the European market. In terms of any action, though, they have said so far it is business as usual as long as there are no specific sanctions.
NR: But the mood in Russia is quite pessimistic. This US sanctions law is expected to remain in effect for decades, impacting businesses, regardless of who is president. And it could mean delays to projects as banks and business could need more time to do a risk assessment.
SE: Yes, and it would be a major blow in particular if the company booked to lay the pipes – Allseas – decides the uncertainty is too much and pulls out. There are very few companies that can do this kind of work, and Gazprom would struggle to do it itself.
SH: Has Allseas indicated that it might pull out of Nord Stream 2? SE: No, but it’s not due to start laying the pipe till next year, so it’s not at risk yet for Nord Stream 2. But it is already directly exposed to potential US sanctions because it’s laying the pipes for Russia’s Turkstream project to Turkey. So it will be interesting to see if it continues with that.
NR: If Gazprom did have to find a replacement for Allseas on Nord Stream 2, that would cause a major delay and it would probably miss the end-2019 start date. That’s a significant date because that’s when Russia’s gas transit contract with Ukraine expires.
SH: Yes, now the US sanctions law specifically mentions supporting Ukraine and other European countries in reducing their dependence on Russian gas. So is this also about promoting sales of US LNG to Europe as an alternative?
NR: Well, that’s how some in Russia see it – that this is unfair competition, with the US trying to push up the costs of Russian gas to make its LNG more attractive.
SE: We’re starting to see a few US LNG cargoes arriving in Europe, and it’s true that access to LNG as a new supply source can help companies negotiate better prices from Gazprom. But it’s hard to imagine US LNG replacing Russian pipeline gas in large volumes. Russian gas is still the cheapest option for most of Europe, and likely to stay that way.
NR: And what’s the view from the EU, Siobhan?
SH: Well, actually the European Commission, like the US, also opposes Nord Stream 2, as part of the same efforts to support Ukraine. But it’s going to fight any attempt by the US to interfere directly in European energy matters. Now the US law says the president has to coordinate with quote “allies of the US,” so as long as the US sees Europe as an ally, Europe is hoping it won’t target European companies.
NR: So this US law really makes the political relations between the US and EU an important risk factor for European energy companies.
SE: Yes, it’s going to matter what the US president thinks about European energy interests, and how well the EU and US are getting on. And it will matter for as long as this law stays in place, which, as Nadia said, could be decades, so this is a new long-term political risk that companies will have to factor in.
SH: Well, we’ll be following this very closely from all sides. That’s all we have time for today. Thank you for listening, and tune in next time for more Platts perspectives on policy.