Gazprom has a new investment plan -- a ray of hope for its customers, who are worried that the gas monopoly has neglected its core business in favour of lavish and irrelevant acquisitions.
The firm controls nearly a fifth of the world's natural gas reserves. Yet there is massive wastage. Around 38% of its staff work in 'non-core functions', according to a recent study. These range from the sensible, such as maintenance operators, to the political, such a TV station and financial newspaper -- as well as some downright bizarre holdings, including a fur farm and sausage factory.
New figures released in late March promise spending will be re-oriented to core, gas-focused operations. Acquisitions will be slashed, while investment in producing and transporting gas will rise 39% in 2009, and even more in 2010.
Lavish shopping sprees are all very well, but observers both at home and abroad have assailed Gazprom for ignoring a looming crisis in gas supply:
- Russia's economy has expanded more than 7% each year since 2000, propelling demand for energy. Yet gas shortages during a cold spell this winter caused some factories to down their tools.
- The gas price within Russia is set by the government. Unnaturally low tariffs leave factories and power stations no incentive to economise on their usage, making the economy unnaturally skewed towards gas, and away from other fuels. Around 90% of homes and businesses lack gas meters, so usage tends to be indiscriminate.
- 80% of the gas is concentrated in a single area: West Siberia, where three super-giant fields form the lion's share of production. Unfortunately, these fieldsare in terminal decline.
Efforts to bring their smaller 'satellite' fields online do little to mask the fact that Gazprom needs to diversify in the far north and east, infrastructure investment is needed to extract the gas and bring it to population centres.
The OECD has scolded Gazprom for its 'insatiable appetite' for acquisitions, which have recently included stakes in oil company Sibneft and power operator Mosenergo.
While the plans will reassure customers in Russia and Europe, it will take a lot of will-power for Gazprom to actually stick to them. Commercial objectives do not always hold sway over personal and political ends in its decision-making process.
Already, it seems that the company lacks self-discipline. Claims have surfaced that it will make a 20 billion dollar purchase of rival TNK-BP -- which drives a horse and carriage through its spending target.