Thursday, June 19, 2008

Marshall Goldman book review: "Petrostate"

The Future Is in the Pipeline

Wall St Journal June 19, 2008; Page A13

Petrostate (Published in the UK as Oilopoly: Putin, Power, and the Rise of the New Russia)

By Marshall Goldman
(Oxford, 244 pages, $27.95)

Natural gas is a monopolistic business: Building even one pipeline is expensive; building another makes no commercial sense. Russia, with its huge natural-gas reserves, uses its monopoly on east-west pipelines to promote Russia's political interests -- and reacts toughly when challenged. Marshall Goldman sets out these disturbing truths in "Petrostate," a bleak and yet spirited account of Russia's energy politics. The West, Mr. Goldman makes clear, should be wincing at its own vulnerability.

[The Future Is in the Pipeline]

The story, as Mr. Goldman tells it, starts with the first oil boom in the czarist era, when Russia and America together produced 97% of the world's oil. Foreign companies were booted out of the Soviet Union by Lenin and Stalin, only to be invited back in again (on different terms) when their technological expertise was missed. After the fall of communism there was a reverse involvement: Foreigners rushed into Russia to help set up a post-communist economy, only to retreat a few years later.

In between came the era of Soviet go-it-alone energy policy, when oil and gas revenues became the vital prop for Leonid Brezhnev's ailing planned economy. As in so many other parts of the Soviet system, ingenuity battled with incompetence, and incompetence won. The Central Intelligence Agency may have helped matters along by encouraging the Saudis to crash the oil price in the 1980s -- Mr. Goldman suggests as much -- but in the end, he argues, it was the Kremlin's mismanagement of its energy reserves that doomed the Soviet system.

Such incompetence lingers. The greedy and shortsighted engineering practices of the past all but ruined many Russian oil fields: It was routine to pump water in to get oil out, regardless of the consequences. The challenge for current Russian engineers is to coax Russia's shattered geology to cough up more oil -- for example, by drilling horizontally, not vertically. That's a tricky technical challenge. Arguing over the best approach to oil-extraction is at the root of the current row between BP and its Russian partners. The Russians want a dash for cash, while BP is seeking careful, long-term management of the oil fields.

Russia shows more savvy when it comes to selling natural gas abroad, where it has used its pipelines to skewer Europe, striking bilateral deals that might make short-term sense for individual countries but that undermine the leverage and bargaining power of the continent as a whole. Europe is three times bigger than Russia by population and about 10 times bigger in economic terms, yet the eagerness of individual countries for Russia's terms makes Europe politically vulnerable to Moscow's divide-and-prosper strategy. As Russia builds relationships with energy companies that might have been in a position to seek other sources of gas, Europe's ability to diversify its suppliers diminishes -- and becomes a prohibitively costly proposition.

Standing in the nerve center of Gazprom's Moscow headquarters -- staring at a 100-foot wall that electronically displays the spiderweb of natural-gas pipelines spreading across Europe from Russia -- Mr. Goldman marvels: "What an empowering feeling! Should they choose to, those Gazprom functionaries could not only cut off natural gas from the furnaces and stoves of 40 percent of Germany's homes but also the natural gas that many German factories need for manufacturing."

In other words, Ronald Reagan's warnings in the 1980s, about the political dangers of Western Europe's dependence on Soviet gas, now seem prescient. Today Western Europe relies on Russia for half of its natural-gas imports.

It is sometimes argued that Russia's increasing energy consumption and its stagnant production -- its output of natural gas has been virtually flat for the past four years -- will lead to gas shortages in Europe. (They are already biting hard in Russia.) Mr. Goldman dismisses such fears, though much too briefly to be convincing. He also sees no danger of an international natural-gas cartel forming along the lines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, one that would presumably include Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Trinidad.

Russia would never let its decision-making be affected by others, Mr. Goldman says. That may be true in the case of price-setting (where the economics are quite different from the oil market, because oil is traded on the spot market, whereas the international gas business is mainly based on long-term contracts). But a possible Organization of Gas Exporting Countries could still help bolster Russia's position by consolidating producer power in exploration, pipeline routes and the market for liquefied natural gas.

The biggest hole in "Petrostate" is its skimpy treatment of the European Union. An important question facing the EU now, for instance, is whether its energy liberalization policy -- unbundling the wholesale and retail businesses in gas and electricity -- will help or hinder the Kremlin. A fragmented market may be even easier to manipulate. Mr. Goldman's sharp mind would be well-suited to untangling such intricacies.

The unanswerable question is whether the Kremlin -- or more precisely, Vladimir Putin -- will use gas as a weapon to gain international political influence. The optimistic view is that business normalizes politics -- in this case, that Russia's need to be a dependable partner will require it to soften its political edge and conform to international standards of behavior. Pessimists fear that gas dependency will lead to the Finlandization of Europe. On the evidence so far, the pessimists have the better chance of being right.

Mr. Lucas is the author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West" (Palgrave).

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