Poland's Energy Sector and Russia's Position: Part 1

7 MINS READFeb 15, 2012 | 13:30 GMT
A Grupa Lotos refinery in Gdansk, Poland
Poland depends on Russia for energy resources, particularly oil and natural gas, which gives Moscow political leverage over Warsaw. However, significant natural gas development could help Poland reduce its dependence on Russia, meet EU environmental standards and boost its regional power as a possible natural gas exporter. Polish energy diversification projects — liquefied natural gas import terminal construction and shale natural gas development — embody this strategy, which could change the Russian-Polish relationship in the coming years.

Like most Central and Eastern European countries, Poland depends heavily on Russia for energy supplies. Similar to its strategy concerning other European countries, Russia uses this dependence as a political tool and in the past has implemented energy cutoffs and politically motivated pricing mechanisms to exert its influence in the region. However, diversification efforts in Poland and policy changes in the European Union likely will affect Russia's position in Poland's energy sector, as well as Russia's political heft in both Poland and the wider region.

Poland is in a better position than many other Central and Eastern European countries concerning energy production. Poland is a major coal producer, and coal constitutes a significant portion of Poland's primary energy supply. The country also has some domestic natural gas production, whereas many other Central and Eastern European countries rely completely on Russia for natural gas. However, Russian oil and natural gas imports amount to nearly half of Poland's primary energy supply, and these inputs are set to grow as Polish energy demand increases and Warsaw continues to diversify away from coal for numerous reasons.

Still, Poland is unique in Central and Eastern Europe in that it is following through with significant diversification projects, such as the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal. Poland also has the potential to further diversify through shale natural gas resource development (though prospects for this are much less clear).

Poland's Energy Supply

A breakdown of Poland's energy supply is necessary in order to accurately gauge Russia's influence in the sector and add context to Warsaw's diversification efforts.

Historically, coal has been the most important energy source in Poland. The country's three largest coal-mining companies — Weglokoks, Kompania Weglowa and Jastrzebska Spolka Weglowa — extract approximately 100 million tons of coal per year. Coal makes up more than 50 percent of Poland's primary energy supply and roughly 85 percent of the country's electricity generation. However, diversification away from coal to natural gas and other energy sources in order to meet EU environmental standards is becoming a priority for Warsaw.

Oil is another important energy source in Poland, accounting for 26 percent of the country's primary energy supply. Poland's demand was 535,000 barrels per day in 2009. The country imports almost all of its crude oil, including 94 percent from Russia, mainly via the Druzhba pipeline. Poland depends less on Russia for refined products, however, importing roughly 25 percent. Poland has six refineries, with PKN Orlen and Grupa Lotos the major Polish companies responsible for refining and fuel stations.

Poland's third major energy source is natural gas, which makes up 13 percent of the country's primary energy supply and 3 percent of its electricity generation. Poland produced 5.9 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2009, or 37 percent of the country's total demand of 15.8 bcm. Polish state-owned natural gas firm PGNiG is responsible for 98 percent of domestic natural gas production, and the company serves as Poland's only natural gas importer, only operator of the country's underground natural gas storage capacity and effective controller of the wholesale natural gas market.

Although natural gas is the smallest major energy input in Poland, it is in many ways the most strategic to the region. Unlike oil, natural gas cannot be delivered via tanker unless it is liquefied, which limits the number of suppliers in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently there are no operational LNG terminals in the region, so the only regional delivery method is through pipeline. And the current pipeline infrastructure dictates that the dominant natural gas supplier for Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, is Russia.

In 2010, Poland imported 10 bcm of natural gas from Russia, or 82 percent of Poland's imports, via the Yamal pipeline. An additional 1 bcm (11 percent) is Russian natual gas transited through Germany, meaning that Poland depends on Russia for virtually all of its natural gas imports. This dependence is expected to grow; PGNiG signed a 10-year contract with Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom in October 2010 to import 11 bcm starting in 2012. The deal also made Polish State Treasury-owned Gaz-System, which was established in 2004 as an independent transmission system operator as a result of PGNiG's unbundling, the operator of the Yamal pipeline in Poland (Gaz-System previously owned and operated all the natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines in Poland except Yamal, which was previously owned by EuRoPol Gaz).

Diversification Projects

As Poland has sought more energy independence from Russia, Warsaw has begun pursuing two key areas of energy diversification: LNG and shale natural gas.

LNG is Poland's primary diversification priority in the near- to midterm. The first LNG import terminal in Central and Eastern Europe is under construction in the northern Polish town of Swinoujscie. Polskie LNG, a subsidiary of Gaz-System, is constructing the terminal and will operate it upon its 2014 completion. The terminal will have a capacity of 5 bcm, with the possibility of expansion to 7.5 bcm at a later date.

The terminal will allow Poland to access numerous LNG providers and purchase natural gas that is roughly $100-150 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) cheaper than Russian natural gas (industry estimates for LNG are currently in the $290-$350 per tcm range, while Poland pays $500 per tcm for Russian natural gas). PGNiG and Qatargas signed a 20-year agreement in 2009 for the purchase of 1.5 bcm per year beginning in 2014. While long-term contracts such as the Qatargas deal are the traditional mode of sale for LNG, Poland likely will reserve the option of spot purchasing as well. The Swinoujscie terminal's 5 bcm capacity could nearly halve Poland's dependence on Russia for natural gas in the next few years, significantly contributing to Poland's energy diversification. However, this assumes that the country will use all 5 bcm to cut imports from Russia and that demand will not grow, both of which are unlikely. But while it might not fully shift the energy balance, the terminal will certainly lessen the pressure Poland feels from Russia and the leverage Moscow has over Warsaw.

In the longer term, Poland is focused on developing its unconventional natural gas resources, including shale natural gas. Since shale natural gas development began in Poland in 2009, more than 100 concessions have been issued to both domestic companies and larger international companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Marathon. Preliminary estimates suggest that Poland could have 1.4-5 tcm of shale natural gas, the development of which could change Poland's energy situation dramatically.

However, there are numerous obstacles to the commercialization of shale natural gas — including capital intensiveness, environmental concerns and the proximity of resources to existing distribution infrastructure — and early testing and drilling has not been a smooth process. ExxonMobil reported in early February that two initial wells undergoing exploratory drilling had "insufficient amounts of gas" for commercial exploitation. However, ExxonMobil subsequently said it would drill another six wells, demonstrating its commitment to the process. Similarly, PGNiG is boosting upstream investment in shale natural gas development, and there have been some promising early results from companies such as Dublin-based San Leon Energy.

A recent corruption scandal about the shale natural gas concessions awarding process led to charges filed against several government officials, but the incident is unlikely to hamper development since the resource is broadly popular with the Polish public. Its popularity is rooted in the potential for shale natural gas to become a strategic boon for Poland. Development could rid the country of its dependence on Russia and possibly make Poland a natural gas exporter to other Central and Eastern European countries, thus contributing to Poland's role as a regional leader. But shale natural gas development is a long-term process that, unlike LNG, does not have a set date to come online, and it could prove unprofitable.

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