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Norway weakens Russia's grip on European gas market

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

* Norway's Statoil quickest to open to spot market

* Russia's Gazprom reluctant but has more spare capacity

* Russia, Norway compete with overseas LNG suppliers

* More spot market pricing may not mean lower prices

By Henning Gloystein

LONDON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Norway's aggressive pricing has forced rival gas exporter Russia to backpedal on costly long-term contracts and start offering competitive spot market deals but European buyers can't expect to pay much less soon.

Europe's two biggest natural gas suppliers, Russia's Gazprom and Norway's Statoil, have traditionally sold through long-term deals linked to oil prices that are now high.

European utilities, hurt by paying steep prices for gas due to the oil connection while wholesale power prices are low, have pressured gas exporters to move away from the link with oil.

These power companies want more flexible pricing based on spot gas markets, such as Britain's National Balancing Point (NBP).

To win market share, Statoil was the quickest of Europe's main suppliers to react by moving more gas to the spot market.

Europe's second biggest gas supplier after Gazprom already sells around half of its gas under spot terms, and says it expects this share to increase.

Analysts say Gazprom must respond or face the consequences.

"If Gazprom is determined to preserve oil-indexation then it will lose market share," the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies said in research note.

Statoil sold record volumes in 2012, even as the European gas market shrank, squeezing as much as possible from fields. This caused Russian gas exports to Europe to fall by nearly 10 percent in January-November 2012.

To address the market share decline, Gazprom made price concessions worth billions of dollars in 2012 and says it will give further rebates on long-term deals this year, although it is still holding on to oil-indexation as its main model.

The company says that the share of spot prices in its contracts is around 7 percent, although some deals with customers have higher spot proportions.

This puts the Russia well behind the trend.

The Oxford Institute says around 45 percent of gas sold in Europe in 2012 was based on spot market price models instead of long-term contracts linked to oil.

"In 2013 this process will go beyond the tipping point: more than half of Europe's gas will be priced in relation to hub and exchange prices," the institute said.

Germany's Commerzbank said this week that increased trading volumes in Europe's gas markets pointed towards more spot-market driven contracts.

"Increased trading volumes point in the same direction. The British market is now what is called a liquid market," the bank said in a research note. Liquidity in continental Europe was also rising, albeit at a slower pace due to the long-term contracts between gas suppliers and utilities, it added.

Oil-indexed gas pricing began after gas was found in the North Sea and the Netherlands in the 1960s and sales contracts were priced against competing heavy fuel oil and heating oil.

GAZPROM NEEDS TO DO MORE

Analysts say Gazprom is going to have to do more that it has already announced to regain European market share, which makes up 80 percent of its income.

"Success will be contingent on Gazprom taking a more proactive approach to pricing flexibility, rather than simply reacting to market trends," said Andrew Neff, energy analyst at IHS.

But Gazprom could have a competitive edge with its pipelines that bring gas straight to Europe without the costly rigmarole associated with shipping liquefied natural gas, which is beginning a time of relatively lower availability.

"We are entering a period where the amount of overseas liquefied natural gas available to Europe is coming to an end as Asian demand keeps increasing and little new global LNG capacity is going to be added over the next couple of years," said Massimo Di-Odoardo, senior researcher at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

"Just at a time where LNG is going to become scarce in Europe, Gazprom will have new pipeline capacity right in the heart of Europe's liquid markets when the NEL pipeline will be fully operational by the end of this year," he added.

The North European Gas Pipeline (NEL) will connect Germany and northwest Europe with Russia's vast Siberian gas reserves.

OPEN MARKET DOES NOT MEAN LOWER PRICES

A more market-driven European gas sector will allow customers to switch more between suppliers, using either LNG or pipelines, depending on offered prices and spare capacity.

"It's becoming a global gas market and we could see much more competition between major pipeline suppliers in Europe as they seek to lock in some supply before a wave of new LNG from Australia, and possibly the U.S., comes to the market later in the decade," Wood Mackenzie's Di-Odoardo said.

Commerzbank said the increase in global LNG capacity would stagnate in the next few years, before picking up after 2015.

Analysts said however that a greater role for the spot market would not necessarily bring lower gas prices in future.

"With traded forward gas prices going up and traded forward oil prices going down, spot indexation for the gas market looks increasingly attractive for gas exporters," he said.

Benchmark Brent crude oil shows a drop in forward prices, from almost $119 per barrel currently to around $95 a barrel by 2016, according to Reuters data.

Benchmark UK NBP forward gas prices, by contrast, are seen rising slightly from around 65 pence ($1.00) per therm currently to almost 70 pence by 2016.

"Maybe they (Statoil) believe spot prices will grow above long-term prices and are switching increased volumes to it. Spot prices have been actually steadily rising recently," Gazprom's export chief Alexander Medvedev told Reuters.

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