Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 15, 2008

Published: November 14, 2008

Ariel Cohen (Middle East Times) by Ariel Cohen (Middle East Times) (*)

MOSCOW – Steadily and stealthily, a natural gas cartel has emerged over the last seven years. On Ariel Cohen, the usually obnoxious 'scarecrow' with a PhD ...Oct. 21 in Tehran, the Gas Exporting Countries’ Forum (GECF) agreed to form a troika which will direct the future cartel. Russia, Iran, and Qatar announced they will form a yet-unnamed group “to coordinate gas policy.” The troika will meet to coordinate and control close to two-thirds of the world’s gas reserves and a quarter of its gas production.

Russia prefers to coordinate energy policies with Tehran, recognizing that together they control roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves and about half of global gas reserves, offering tremendous geo-economic power.

The United States should create an international coalition of energy consumers to oppose energy cartels. The U.S. Congress should also allow energy exploration in the Arctic, the Rocky Mountains, and along the continental shelves and expand cooperative gas ties with Canada.

Russia’s Global Gas Strategy

In the tight global energy market, Russia clearly appreciates the bargaining power that its energy resources provide, as it attempts to control energy exports from the New Independent States, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Russia also has strengthened its ties to Iran, Venezuela, Libya, and other energy exporters. Recently, Moscow also launched a “charm offensive” on OPEC.

Russia is playing a sophisticated game to maximize its advantage as the leading gas producer with the largest reserves on the planet as well as the second largest oil exporter.

Russia’s approach was gradualist. Moscow had never openly shown enthusiasm about a gas cartel but waited for an opportunity to launch one. Yet, the cartel reportedly was a brainchild of the Russian prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s approach was also stealthy. Instead of announcing the cartel prematurely and spooking consumer countries, it quietly put the component parts into place. Until the Tehran declaration, Russia was able to appear reasonable.

At the Doha meeting in April, members of the GECF agreed to discuss dividing the consumer markets between them, particularly in Europe. Russia and Algeria are already major players there, and Iran may join them in the next decade. This will clearly challenge the European Union’s energy liberalization and gas deregulation policy, which took effect on July 1.

Geopolitical Clout

The troika and GECF members are planning to “reach strategic understandings” on export volumes, schedules of deliveries, and the construction of new pipelines. They plan to explore and develop gas fields and coordinate startups and production schedules. Despite protestations to the contrary, the GECF has all the trappings of a nascent cartel, and the troika includes its founding members. These founders will expand cooperation beyond their relationship through the GECF and drag other gas producers with them.

The new group will provide its three leaders with greater geopolitical advantage. If this new cartel expands, Russia and Iran will gain clout over Eurasian gas suppliers, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Major gas producers such as Iran, Russia, Qatar, Turkmenistan, Brunei, and Venezuela have one feature in common: a democracy deficit. All three members of the new cartel share this dubious quality. Just like OPEC, the gas cartel will be a force that can be used to challenge and possibly weaken market–based democracies through energy prices and wealth transfer. Such a cartel may cut deals with undemocratic large-scale consumers, such as China, while forcing the West to pay full price.

Coordinated Global Action Needed

The U.S. George W. Bush administration barely reacted to the Tehran and Doha meetings. Officials express concern, but only in private. The European Commission merely stated that it opposed price-fixing cartels in principle.

As the case of OPEC demonstrates, closing markets to competition, promoting national oil companies, and limiting production results in limited supply and higher oil prices. Gas will not be different.

What the U.S. Can Do

The United States should open its vast natural gas resources onshore and offshore to further exploration and production and encourage its neighbors in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean to do the same.

The next administration should work with the European Union, Japan, China, India, and other countries to prevent the cartelization of the gas sector. This can be accomplished through cooperation with the International Energy Agency, which China and India should be invited to join, and by applying anti-trust legislation worldwide against state-owned companies that are actively involved in cartel-like behavior in energy markets.

Finally, the United States should work closely with those within GECF who oppose Russian-Iranian domination, including Azerbaijan, Canada, the Netherlands, and Norway. The National Security Council and the National Economic Council should take the lead in developing this policy. Unless buyer solidarity is translated into action, energy consumers and economic growth will suffer worldwide.

(*) – Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.



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