Russia’s LNG Boom Hinges On Foreign Tech
Living the seventh year of sectoral sanctions that target its prospective oil and gas projects, Russia has grown accustomed to living under pressure. Sanctions have made it much more difficult to lend money, more difficult to secure viable partnerships and get access to state-of-the-art technologies. Going beyond the day-to-day challenges, there is one thing that has been missing from Russia’s portfolio – a breakthrough within its import substitution drive. Developing and commissioning its own liquefaction technology might have been just that, a resolute statement that Russian companies can overcome the technological arrears in a sector that had previously been underrepresented or just simply put on the back burner. Yet that is hardly what we see right now.
Arctic Cascade was destined to become the jewel in the crown of Yamal LNG. The first patented Russian technology to liquefy natural gas, Arctic Cascade was poised to decrease liquefaction costs by utilizing the naturally cold climate, with the port of Sabetta located beyond the Arctic circle. A conventional LNG terminal would use 3 compression cycles, using propane, ethylene and methane as coolants. Arctic Cascade, on the other hand, would first separate ethane from the natural gas to be processed only to use the same ethane molecules as coolant in the first round of liquefaction – the second cycle is then carried out with refrigerated nitrogen as cooling agent. Thus, NOVATEK argues, Russian companies in the Arctic might save on energy costs by utilizing Arctic temperatures.
The first LNG project that NOVATEK has carried through was overall Russia’s first Arctic one, Yamal LNG. It was designed and developed by the Franco-Japanese consortium of Technip, JGC and Chiyoda with liquefaction technology provided by Air Products. In terms of sticking to project deadlines, the launch of the first three liquefaction trains was an undisputable success – in fact the commissioning phases were so smooth that Train 3 started up twelve months ahead of schedule in December 2018, bringing the total production capacity to 16.5mtpa LNG. The last piece of the Yamal LNG jigsaw puzzle was missing still, the fourth train was to be based on the Arctic cascade technology. Wary of taking on a task too big, the proprietary train carried a nameplate capacity of 0.94mtpa, i.e. almost six times lower than the “regular” ones.
The first real deadline was initially set for Q4 2019, however this was quickly rescheduled for Q2 2020, then Q3 and so on. To cut a long story short, Arctic Cascade is still far from being launched. There is very little substantiation on the causes of the delay, Russian media reports bluntly state that there remains a fundamental problem that remains to be solved. What would it mean for NOVATEK’s immediate future? The forthcoming Arctic LNG 2 is still to run on liquefaction technology that the project company bought from Linde, i.e. remains more or less insulated from the travails of Arctic Cascade. The three 6.6mtpa liquefaction trains of Arctic LNG 2 are assumed to be launched in 2023-2024-2026, with all of its production capacity already covered by long-term offtake agreements.
At the same time, there is a larger picture at hand with Obskiy LNG as it should have been NOVATEK’s first own-led project, using proprietary liquefaction technology so as to minimize technological exposure against the background of US/EU sanctions. Renouncing on foreign liquefaction technology providers, Obskiy LNG was created with the purpose of using Arctic Cascade as its base liquefaction technology. Initially the project was assumed to have three 1.6mtpa liquefaction trains, smaller in scale than Yamal LNG, thus becoming Russia’s first-ever domestically developed LNG terminal. Absent any technological breakthrough, it is a fully feasible alternative that Obskiy LNG would be steered away from LNG. Recent utterances from NOVATEK top management seem to indicate that the Russian firm is gauging the viability of producing blue ammonia from the two dedicated gas fields – Verkhne-Tiuteyskoye and Zapadno-Seyakhinskoye.
The two-year delay in commissioning Arctic Cascade has triggered the first high-rank personnel changes. Evgeniy Kot, the LNG head of the Yamal LNG project company, is reportedly slated for an impending dismissal as the top management NOVATEK grows increasingly impatient with the seemingly non-existing progress of the 4th liquefaction line. This is quite a development considering that Kot has been working at NOVATEK for almost two decades and has managed to head Yamal LNG in Russia’s ever-changing environment for seven years already. Rerouting the $0.5 billion Arctic Cascade project into a blue ammonia project might trigger even more substantial changes within the Russian firm.
Overall, even if Obskiy LNG remains a liquefied gas project, the implications of Arctic Cascade being this much in delay are manifold. First and foremost, it is highly unlikely that Obskiy LNG will be designed, built and operated solely on the basis of Russian technologies, despite the initial assumptions. Potentially corroborating such concerns, NOVATEK has reportedly sought out foreign producers of turbines as domestic suppliers simply lack the know-how to build fitting equipment for Obskiy LNG. Second, the totality of LNG-relevant developments foreshadows that Russia’s import substitution drive will most probably become a drive for localizing foreign technologies rather than a genuine industry game-changer whereby domestic Russian companies produce equipment of equivalent or superior quality.