Anatoliy Amelin, Andrian Prokip and Andreas Umland
October 10, 2020
Harvard International Review
Over the last several years, the future of the European energy supply has become an increasingly geopolitical topic. It has become more and more linked to the questions of security, competing gas transportation routes, and continuously tense Ukrainian-Russian relations. In late 2019, Kyiv concluded a new and beneficial transit agreement with Moscow for the transfer of Siberian gas to the EU, in part due to fresh US sanctions against Russia’s off-shore pipeline projects. This 5-year deal is currently securing the continued use of a part of Ukraine’s large gas transportation system, and as long as Gazprom’s Nord Stream II pipeline through the Baltic Sea does not go forward, the Ukrainian gas transportation system will have some prospect, use, and income.
These well-known confrontations and negotiations concerning different routes of Russian gas supply to the EU, however, diverted attention from the potential of Ukraine’s own gas and oil reserves, as well as the associated storage facilities. The considerable natural resources in Ukraine’s energy sphere remain underexplored and underused today despite the fact that their use could spur economic growth not only in the energy sector, but also in other industries of the country.
Excluding Russia’s gas reserves in Asia, Ukraine today holds the second biggest known gas reserves in Europe. As of late 2019, known Ukrainian reserves amounted to 1.09 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, second only to Norway’s known resources of 1.53 trillion cubic meters. Yet, these enormous reserves of energy remain largely untapped. Today, Ukraine has a low annual reserve usage rate of about 2 percent. Moreover, more active exploration may yield previously undiscovered gas fields, which would further increase the overall volume of Ukraine’s deposits.
In spite of this hopeful situation, Ukraine still depends substantially on gas imports. When the USSR started large-scale gas extraction in Western Siberia in the 1970s, much of the relevant expertise and capacity in the sector of Soviet gas exploration and production were transferred from the Ukrainian to the Russian Soviet republic and some other East European states. As a result of this outflow of expertise, Ukraine’s remaining gas resources have remained insufficiently developed, largely underused, and partly unexplored.
Until recently, Ukraine’s total average annual consumption amounted to approximately 29.8 billion cubic meters (bcm). Of this entire yearly need, approximately 14.3 bcm consists of imports. Thus, unlocking its unused reserves would provide for a revolutionary future for Ukraine’s gas sector and energy consumption.
Resolute development of the already explored and accessible Ukrainian resources could result in a substantial increase of Ukrainian gas production. The boost would not only enable the country to fully cover its domestic gas needs, but also make Ukraine largely self-sufficient from an energy perspective. In a best-case scenario, increased production could even allow Ukraine to start exporting gas to or via neighboring European states. This would be feasible because Ukraine’s substantial gas transportation system means that the necessary infrastructure is already in place to bring large amounts of gas to the EU.
According to some estimates, the EU will import around 90 percent of the gas it consumes by 2030. Thus, during the next decade, Brussels will be increasingly eager to diversify the origins and routes of the European gas supply. In this context, smaller or even prospective gas exporters like Ukraine become more attractive to policymakers in Brussels: such new participants in the European market would lower EU dependency on the large players in the field, thus strengthening the European negotiating position.
Despite the enormous potential of Ukraine’s energy reserves, there are non-trivial costs to developing Ukraine’s capabilities. According to an assessment study by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a transformation of Ukraine into a self-sufficient energy consumer and potential exporter would require a number of investments amounting to approximately US$19.5 billion. Of this amount, about US$3.5 billion are needed for developing gas fields and building pipelines, US$14 billion would have to be invested into oil extraction, and US$2 billion would go toward oil refining.
The overall size of the investment needed to achieve the goal of full energy independence constitutes a considerable amount compared to Ukraine’s relatively small state budget and GDP. Nevertheless, the sum only equals the approximate costs for current Ukrainian energy imports over the span of two to three years. Thus, the relatively high absolute cost would amortize itself quickly.
Moreover, financial investment in Ukraine’s energy sector is increasingly attractive. Over the last few years, Ukraine has (often under IMF pressure) gradually reduced distortive governmental interventions into the gas market. Kyiv has introduced market prices for households and no longer provides subsidies for all consumers indiscriminately. This relatively new domestic market should make financial engagement in Ukrainian gas production and exploration more attractive than it had been in the past, and the investment climate will improve once European energy markets recover in the aftermath of a likely global containment of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
The Road Ahead
Ukraine’s gas transportation system will continue to play a key role for the future of Ukraine’s energy sector. Ukraine has one of the most well-developed and all-encompassing gas transportation infrastructures of any country in the world, in terms of both domestic deliveries and export facilities. The Ukrainian gas transit system constitutes a heritage of the Soviet energy expansion to Europe, as a partial result of the German Neue Ostpolitik (New Eastern Policy) of the 1970s. For a long time, Ukraine served as the main corridor for the transfer of Soviet and later Russian as well as Central Asian gas to numerous European states. The current usage of this capacity is much lower than a decade earlier due to the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in 2012, the growing introduction of renewable energy resources, and the current economic downturn; however, Ukraine’s pipelines and compressor stations are still ready to be used, and have significant capacity beyond merely delivering Russian or Turkmen gas to the EU.
A significant part of the multidimensional Ukrainian gas infrastructure is the huge underground gas storage facilities that the country controls. Only partially used, Ukrainian capacities to store natural gas amount to more than 31 bcm. If fully exploited, Ukraine could hypothetically add almost one third to the approximately 100 bcm of storage space that EU member states currently hold as a whole. Thus, it is no surprise that the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie recently suggested that Ukraine holds the key to Europe’s gas current storage crunch. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, world gas prices plummeted, but the EU’s storage facilities do not have enough space to take full advantage of the situation. To ease foreign concerns about investing in Ukraine, the country adopted some amendments to relevant laws and directives in late 2019—regulatory modifications that should make it easier for foreign firms to use available storage capacity. In response, during the first nine months of 2020, foreign energy firms pumped 7.9 bcm of gas to Ukraine for storage, an amount several times higher than the volume of foreign gas stored in Ukraine during the entire year of 2019.
Hydrogen is another new horizon for Ukraine’s underdeveloped energy industry. Today, various gas distribution companies are examining Ukraine’s pipeline capacities with the hope of converting some of the existing infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to their customers in the future. The EU has identified Ukraine as a priority partner for future collaboration in the use of hydrogen to enhance the Union’s energy supply and security.
Yet another energy form of high potential in Ukraine is biogas. Currently, the country has sufficient capacity to produce circa 10 bcm of biogas annually, a volume that is roughly equivalent to the amount of natural gas that Ukraine imports every year. In view of Ukraine’s currently growing agricultural sector, its capacity to produce biogas may grow further. This capacity is quite future-proof: mixing biogas with hydrogen generates biomethane, an environmentally friendly form of energy that does not contain carbon dioxide.
Boosting Ukraine’s domestic production of natural gas, biogas, hydrogen and biomethane would not only lower or even abolish Ukrainian dependence on energy imports. It would also create a new and potent export-oriented branch in Ukraine’s economy, while also providing impulses for stronger growth in other sectors. At the same time, the EU would benefit from a diversification of its gas supply sources, and from obtaining a new major energy partner in its immediate vicinity. Moreover, such cooperation would strengthen Brussels’ economic ties with Kyiv, and lower the need for Western support for the Ukrainian state. A resolute development of Ukraine’s untapped reserves in the production, export and storage of energy would be in the interest of all sides involved.
Anatoliy Amelin is one of the co-founders of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and its Director of Economic Programs.
Andrian Prokip is an Energy Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Senior Associate of the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC.
Andreas Umland is a Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Researcher with the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.