COMMENT: Can Romania become Europe's energy security hub in shared partnership with China and the West?

COMMENT: Can Romania become Europe's energy security hub in shared partnership with China and the West?
By Alexey Golovin of KMG International May 29, 2017

Every year since 2012, energy policy-makers and industry leaders from across Europe have come together in Brussels for Romanian Energy Day. The fact that our meetings on May 30 and 31 come less than a week after OPEC's Vienna talks is no coincidence, because increasingly the centre of gravity for economic and energy security is located on the Black Sea, the crossroads between east and west, where we see China being connected to the European continent.

Indeed, China is the other headline event at our meeting, where we all are evaluating Beijing's renewed pledge earlier in May to spend $124bn on One Belt One Road economic development projects across Asia, Africa and Europe, with a focus on resource infrastructure. One forecast shows as much as $11bn of that being invested in Romania over the next five years.

My work is at KazMunayGas International (KMGI), a company which reaches into six EU countries and across 10 Black Sea nations, in our home market Romania. This experience of the country, Europe and Black Sea operations gives me a positive outlook on the promise for Romania, KMGI and business around the region to build new partnerships with China. We see the possibility for market-making transformative change, for new investment with the potential to enable governments and industry to shape transactions and increase outputs, to move away from the old ways of defensive decision-making.

So the question at the heart of our discussions in Brussels this week is: can Romania, given its great asset base, reach its potential to become a Black Sea energy hub, a bridge between East and West? It is a subject that draws our attention again and again, because one core interest we all share is the knowledge that energy security brings with it economic security, and greater flows of investment, which contribute to social protection and national growth.

We also know that funds directed towards energy security help promote democracy and stronger governance, including rule of law and independent institutions. Romania, and indeed the region from Turkey to Ukraine to the Balkans to Hungry, are all dealing with difficult national challenges, seeking to increase flows of commerce and trade, boost economic development and jobs, build new relations between government and private investors.

Romania is at a development crossroads. The country has the chance to control its energy and economic future, to become a model example for other European governments seeking to secure new flows of capital and energy output, and not be beholden to Russia.   

The Black Sea region is already home to enormous energy resources and assets thanks to billions of dollars that have been invested especially into oil processing refineries and pipelines over the past decade. To give just one example of this vast interconnected energy corridor, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline transporting crude from Kazakhstan and Russia to the Black Sea has the potential to double its capacity to 67mn tonnes per year, with close to 90% of that coming from Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan's national oil company, producing more than 22mn tonnes of output each year, is increasingly a central actor in the growing public and private partnerships across the region that help fuel greater energy capacity and diversification. KMGI runs Romania's largest refinery, Petromidia, where we have invested about $1.2bn in new technologies and innovations over more than ten years. That dedicated spending since we entered the market in 2007 is the reason that our operations and financial performance show increasingly positive results, and are recognised by international experts as being one of Europe's most productive platforms. We are the country's biggest energy exporter. We employ 5,000 workers, and each year we pay about $1.5bn in taxes to the Treasury, helping Romania's economy grow. As a country, we import less than 20% of our energy resources, while the average figure for the EU as a whole is closer to 55% dependence on foreign supply. Just five years ago we in Romania counted largely on Russian oil for our energy needs, whereas today Kazakhstan supplies the bulk, amounting to around 62%.

Here is where things can get really interesting. One of China's largest private energy companies, CEFC, agreed in 2016 to take a majority share in KMGI. It is a deal that could shape the resource destiny of the Black Sea region. KMGI sits at the geographical centre and financial heart of this partnership. What emerges is a supply chain corridor that stretches from China to Kazakhstan to Romania, adding value every mile along the route.

The venture holds the promise to inject billions in new project development into Romania and the region. The deal could be completed this summer pending approval from Bucharest officials and competition authorities in a few other countries. The network of shared interests for Romania and the region is clear: China brings new finance, Kazakhstan has enormous resources and Romania holds the energy base and assets.

The CEFC-KMGI transaction is especially important because the new Bucharest government has affirmed its commitment to energy independence and also pledged to allocate new spending for development and social protection projects. However, questions remain about where these funds will come from. Growth is not fast enough to reduce the rising deficit, already exceeding EU budget rules. And a series of recent international legal disputes where courts ruled against the state have hurt Romania's business position.

Adding to investor questions about whether the state is ready to anchor energy security and investor protection to the national economic agenda, are two interrelated issues, the approach to which will test the performance of the new government and how it is seen outside the country. First, prompt resolution of KMGI's legal dispute with the state, in which our assets have been frozen by the authorities since last May in violation of Romania's own laws of due process. Second, implementation of the memorandum of understanding that includes the joint KMGI-Romania investment fund for national development projects. This MoU was signed and agreed with the state back in 2013 but has been postponed 14 times since then. KMGI is ready to conclude terms with the government for project activation, which in shared partnership could produce energy-related projects of up to $1bn for Romania.

Romania has the power to shape its energy destiny and become a catalyst for seeding energy and economic integration across the EU and the region. The assets and advantages of location and supply to bridge east and west are there. Ultimately, the trajectory of Romania, its government and business partners towards a prosperous future are linked in mutual interest.

Alexey Golovin is vice-president at KMG International.