Gas producers’ cartel unlikely now, experts say, but tensions over secure supplies keep consumers on edge

LONDON – Fears among energy-importing nations that Russia and the world’s other big gas producers could form a powerful OPEC-style grouping that might influence prices seem premature but not groundless. Analysts say the fragmented nature of the gas market, with supplies to different regions sold under long-term contracts priced against oil, make it unlikely exporters could find enough common ground to work together like the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil producers – at least in the near term. But the emergence of a world spot market in liquefied natural gas (LNG) could create a global price and eventually form the basis for closer cooperation between some producers. «Basically the gas-exporting countries are too different, with competing, not complementary, interests (to form a gas OPEC),» Jonathan Stern of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies said. «The emergence of a global LNG market could create the conditions for a group of like-minded exporting countries, but that will be some way in the future,» Stern said. Russia, the world’s biggest exporter and Europe’s biggest supplier, on Thursday signaled the possibility of closer gas cooperation with other producing nations. This followed overtures to Moscow last Monday by Iran, which said the two countries could establish the structure of a gas grouping like OPEC. Russian and Iran together control about 40 percent of the world’s gas reserves. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed on Thursday he did not want to see an OPEC-style group coordinating output to influence gas prices, but thought that cooperation to help secure supplies to customers was an interesting idea. His remarks were enough to stoke concerns held by import-reliant Europe since the formation in 2001 of a Gas Exporting Country Forum (GECF). Last month Russia signed a cooperation agreement with Algeria, Europe’s third-biggest supplier, drawing calls from the European Commission for an explanation of the closer contacts between states that together provide 35 percent of Europe’s gas. «If I imagine that there is some agreement on limiting production or price, there is inevitably (an effect) on consumers,» EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said at the time. In a further sign of tensions between European consumers and gas suppliers, Spain’s government this week proposed laws barring large producers like Russia and Algeria from selling directly to Spanish businesses. GECF member countries include Algeria, Bolivia, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Norway (as an observer), Oman, Qatar, Russia, Trinidad and Tobago, the UAE and Venezuela. Together these countries account for about 70 percent of global gas reserves and 40 percent of production. But the GECF did not even meet last year and shows little sign of gaining momentum. Changing supply patterns, as dozens of new LNG projects are developed in Qatar, Nigeria and other countries looking to market gas without laying pipelines, could bring a shift in strategy. «There’s lots of new LNG supply coming on line and that could mean oversupply on the horizon,» another UK-based analyst said. «This could mean lower prices, lower margins for producers, and maybe moves to cooperate on volumes,» he said.