SINGAPORE — For a long time, energy-hungry Asia has watched in frustration as Russia, currently the world’s biggest producer of both oil and natural gas, sent nearly all its exports to former Soviet bloc partners and Europe, leaving Asian consumers increasingly dependent on imports from the Middle East.

However, this will change over the next few years as a growing volume of Russian oil heads for Asia via a newly opened terminal at Kozmino on the Pacific Ocean. A pipeline, due to be completed by 2014, will link the port to oil-rich East Siberia, nearly 5,000 kilometers inland, eventually raising the export flow to 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd).

Indeed, with Russian shipments to Asia already starting to rise to significant levels, Middle East suppliers face a growing challenge in a market where in coming decades most of the growth in global oil demand is expected to occur, led by China and India.

Russia’s strategy is clear. As the top non-OPEC supplier, it wants to grab a larger share of the Asian market from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, while easing Russian reliance on sales to Europe.

Money, power and economic leverage in Asia are at stake. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that even in 2009, a relatively depressed year, OPEC earned $575 billion in net oil export revenues, a figure expected to rise to $759 billion this year. Much of this oil is sold to Asia.

So far, Russia — despite holding the world’s largest gas reserves and the eighth-biggest oil deposits, and with two-thirds of its land territory in Asia — has been a small-time player in the booming Asian market for both oil and gas.

In opening Kozmino port Dec. 28 to the first tanker-load of oil bound for Hong Kong, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not mince words.

“Russia is so poorly represented in the Asia-Pacific hydrocarbon market that it’s an embarrassment to mention it,” he said. “Arab countries account for 69 percent of the oil in this market, while Russia’s share is a meager 5 or 6 percent.”

Much of Russia’s current oil exporting is by rail to China, although some is also shipped to Asia from Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. Much more oil and gas from Sakhalin will go to Japan and other Asian buyers if energy projects on the island proceed as planned.

In the future, however, delivery of Russian oil and gas to Asian consumers will be mostly done by pipeline. Over half of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline has been built, at a cost of $12 billion. It carries oil from Russia’s newest and most promising oil fields in East Siberia to Skovorodino, close to the Chinese border. From there, a spur line is being built into China. When finished next year, it will carry 300,000 bpd under a $25 billion Chinese loan-for-Russian oil deal sealed in 2009. The contract is for 20 years.

Last month, Russia and China edged closer to a large-scale gas supply agreement under which two separate pipelines from Russia will carry gas into the western and eastern regions of China.

Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, says Russia’s future gas exports to China will be equivalent to around one-third of its Europe-bound gas supplies.

Europe depends on Russia for more than a quarter of its gas supplies and almost 30 percent of its crude oil imports. But the relationship has been fractious in recent years, with Europe complaining that Russia has been an unreliable supplier, demanding ever-higher prices, and Russia chafing at measures blocking access to the European energy market.

Russia wants to be in a position where it can send oil and gas through its pipelines either east or west, so it can drive a harder bargain with customers.

Russia will spend another $10 billion to extend the ESPO oil pipeline from Skovorodino to Kozmino, a distance of 2,100 km. By 2016, two years after ESPO is completed, the pipeline is expected to be exporting 1 million bpd to Asia, rising to 1.6 million bpd by 2025. Meanwhile, an existing railway from Skovorodino will carry 250,000 bpd to Kozmino in the first quarter of 2010, increasing to 300,000 bpd until ESPO becomes operational.

How quickly Russia will be able to capture market share in Asia from Middle East exporters remains to be seen. First it must establish a reputation for reliability and quality for its new ESPO blend of East Siberian oil. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said last month the blend “meets the needs of every refinery in the region. It is very competitive.”

Long dominant Mideast suppliers of oil to Asia now face competition not just from Russia but also from other non-OPEC countries, including Australia and emerging export giant Brazil.

Russia’s oil output grew by around 1.5 percent in 2009 to nearly 10 million bpd. It has become the world’s leading oil producer because Saudi Arabia, which previously held the top spot, has had to observe OPEC-led supply curbs.

The International Energy Agency says it expects average global oil demand to climb this year to just over 86 million bpd, driven mostly by Asia.

Non-OPEC supply is expected to rise in 2010 by 310,000 bpd to an average of around 51.3 million bpd, further raising its share of the world market at the expense of OPEC. In Asia, the immediate worry for Middle East members of OPEC is that growing competition with Russia and other non-OPEC exporters will result in price cuts. That would be welcomed by Asian refiners.

Longer term, the Middle East may face a significant loss of market share, and therefore influence, in Asia. This, too, may work to Asia’s advantage if it results in a better balance between supply of OPEC and non-OPEC oil to the region.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.