EU flexes antitrust muscle to counter Putin’s gas gamesmanship

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source: https://www.politico.com

Threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin with a large antitrust first-class has labored inside the past as a way to improve the behavior of his export monopoly Gazprom in the EU, so why now not strive it once more?

EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told European electricity ministers on Tuesday that Brussels' opposition police had started out gathering proof on whether or not hovering power charges can be blamed on illegal interest via any of the bloc's foremost gas providers. The European Commission showed that questionnaires had been despatched to all the parties who may want to help piece collectively a case on this fall's most urgent monetary disaster.

Brussels' competition investigators averted mentioning Gazprom with the aid of call, but the enterprise is an vintage sparring partner. Gazprom elements greater than 40 percentage of EU gasoline imports and turned into the challenge of one of the maximum high-profile antitrust cases Brussels has ever undertaken, from 2012 to 2018. Although that probe did now not result in the attention-watering nice that Russia's leading critics like Poland and Lithuania had desired, it did push Gazprom to notably adjust its enterprise version across Central and Eastern Europe.

Still sad that Moscow wasn't heavily fined in 2018, Poland is now main the rate for EU enforcers to take fresh motion over what it sees as marketplace manipulation from the Russians, who are accused of driving up prices this 12 months by way of undershooting on predicted deliveries.

Putin himself is handing over combined messages over Russia's motives. On the one hand, he's denying that Russia is the usage of the sector's biggest fuel reserves as a geopolitical weapon. On the alternative, he's concurrently suggesting that flows may want to choose up drastically if felony clearance have been given to the noticeably contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline this is designed to pump Russian gasoline immediately to Germany. Gazprom did no longer respond to a request for comment.

No longer content to leave all the posturing (and ability bluffs) to Russia, Simson on Tuesday vowed Brussels would check out "sizable problem about market manipulation or speculation." That can be tune to the ears of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who stated a probe should "sober up Gazprom."

Pipeline penalties

Lawyers agreed it made experience to turn to competition regulation, the European Commission's single most powerful policy weapon. “While the probe can be politically prompted by using the strength charge crisis, it does now not seem unreasonable to look at the present day marketplace dynamics through the lens of competition regulation,” stated Natura Gracia, a opposition attorney at Linklaters.

“Brussels will be searching into an abuse of dominance via Gazprom, seeking to collect proof of the organization withholding deliver to boom prices, or of anti-aggressive regulations in contracts among wholesale fuel providers like Gazprom and European retail gas providers,” Gracia delivered.

Alan Riley, an academic lawyer focusing on EU antitrust, exchange and strength regulation, who has previously suggested Polish and Ukrainian energy organizations, said there has been sufficient proof to open an research into abuse of dominance through Gazprom.

"You’ve got a dominant issuer seeking to intentionally refuse to supply fuel without any industrial motives, they are at once the use of their marketplace strength to restrict supply,” Riley said.

A complete Commission antitrust probe could, of path, be too gradual to be a silver bullet for Europe's fuel woes this wintry weather. The case that the EU settled in 2018 began with sunrise raids across Europe in 2011. But that might not be the instant goal. Merely speaking approximately a probe — which might also by no means cause formal prices, not to mention a excellent — may want to truly be supposed to sharpen minds in Moscow.

Riley said the Commission's danger of an investigation "increases pressure on Russia and Gazprom" to make greater gasoline to be had.

The European Commission can trouble a excellent of up to ten percent of a employer's turnover in a economic yr. Although Gazprom become spared anything so intense in 2018, it was compelled to forestall divide-and-rule processes in Eastern Europe, in which it may dictate prices usa-through-country. The EU case driven it to stop writing contracts wherein Eastern Europeans couldn't resell gasoline to pals and struck out clauses wherein Gazprom's opponents were excluded.

U.S. Senior Adviser for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein said on Monday that Russia had the fuel required to maintain substances flowing.

"If Russia has the gasoline to deliver [Europe] via Nord Stream 2, as they propose, meaning that they've the gasoline to deliver it thru the Ukrainian [system] or other pipelines as nicely ... That's what we count on and what I assume any open, loose market should assume."

One foot at the hose

One of the extra immediate issues for Gazprom is that consumers with long-term contracts have clauses that hyperlink charges to the fee of fuel on the openly traded spot market. If Gazprom puts more gas into the marketplace, it'll depress costs no longer best in the open marketplace but in its longer term contracts too.

Any new case towards Gazprom may want to certainly be made greater complicated with the aid of the various forms of fuel sales and contracts in question. The 2012-2018 case targeted at the way Gazprom trapped nations into unfair contracts. The cutting-edge objections hinge more on limits to open marketplace deliver, that could prove more difficult territory wherein to show abuse of a dominant function. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen positioned it: "While Gazprom has honored its long-time period contracts with us, it did no longer respond to higher demand because it did in previous years."

Explaining Gazprom's catch 22 situation, Jack Sharples, a studies fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, stated the boot had been on the alternative foot ultimate 12 months when costs had been at rock bottom, and argued there was no contractual responsibility for the Russian employer to provide more gas.

"The contrast among 2020 and 2021 couldn't be more stark: Last year, when European call for declined and hub fees had been at file lows, Europe had no hassle with its lengthy-time period settlement components from Gazprom being hub-listed, and European organizations have been satisfied to make full use in their contractual flexibility to take less fuel from Gazprom. A yr later, with hub prices at file highs, despite the fact that we would like to peer Gazprom provide extra volumes to the European marketplace, we should take into account that they are now not simply obliged to achieve this."

Russia argues that its deliveries are falling short of preceding years due to the fact it's miles nonetheless filling domestic garage, but an electricity economist who regularly consults for European gasoline marketplace individuals harassed the capability antitrust worries.

The economist stated that "it appears possibly that what Gazprom is doing right now's earnings maximization — if it added greater it would possibly lessen its earnings, and that is kind of the definition of marketplace energy abuse. Withholding elements to keep fees high is absolutely anti-aggressive."