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09.28.12

Hydraulic Fracking's Putting the Screws to Vladimir and Friends

Ignore Matt Damon's silly, petrodollar-fueled movie and focus on something that matters.

Hydraulic fracking is helping put a crimp on Russian Oligarchs, extending even to the Kremlin. Witness the power of free markets and human innovation to improve people's lives and make life harder for tyrants.

With its surge in shale gas production the US has become self-sufficient in natural gas. It has overtaken Russia as the biggest natural gas producer. Crucially, US natural gas is cheap. Domestic US natural gas prices are only a quarter of Gazprom’s oil-linked eastern European prices. Such large price differentials cannot possibly last for long.

Many countries had prepared to produce liquefied natural gas for export to the US. Now these large volumes of LNG are being diverted to Europe, where spot prices have fallen to half of Gazprom’s prices. In Germany, Gazprom has been forced to accept large price cuts, but it insists on maintaining high contracted prices in eastern Europe, although oil and gas prices have delinked on the market. ...

For years, many analysts have said that Russia will reform only when the oil price falls because Gazprom seems to be the Kremlin’s main slush fund, which is now being drastically reduced. The Kremlin will have little choice but to forsake its mega-projects. It has already abandoned the mastodon Arctic Shtokman field. The next steps should be to back out of South Stream, the superfluous and exceedingly expensive pipeline project, as well as the planned gigantic sky-rise headquarters in St Petersburg. But that will hardly suffice. This dysfunctional former Soviet gas ministry will have to be cut up into real companies, which need to be privatised.

Gazprom’s demise looks likely. With its demise, Russia’s revenues would dwindle. Mr Putin‘s model of state capitalism would suffer a devastating blow from Gazprom’s fall. If not even Gazprom is viable, which Russian state company is? Such an insight could give market economic reforms new impetus. After all, Russia just privatised $5.2bn of shares in Sberbank, the state savings bank.