Dr. Fares Kilzie, Chairman of the Board of the CREON Group


2020 was a year of radical shifts in energy markets. The first, but not the most important one, was the deliberate failure of the OPEC+ deal in March. This was largely predetermined by the reallocation of standings of the major players in the oil market. In 2016, when the first OPEC+ deal was announced, the share of OPEC in global oil and liquid hydrocarbon production was 37.8%, but in 2019 it was only 34.4% according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The share of the United States in the same period increased from 15.2% to 19.3%, while that of the OECD (Organization of Co-operation and Development) countries combined increased from 27.5% to 31.4%. The dissent within the cartel and the loss of market share forced OPEC to tighten its output reduction policy, which increasingly threatened economic feasibility and the national interests of its own members.

It was Russia, who managed to cut the Gordian knot. Moscow promptly understood the meaninglessness of the ‘reduction race’ when output outside OPEC countries was growing chaotically, and Western Europe and North America are taking up major steps in the transition to low-carbon economies. The general geopolitical situation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, prompted Russia to resume participation in a new deal. However, this was only a tactical retreat and a temporary trade-off that cannot reverse long-term global trends.

The main postulate of Russia is: if everyone is reducing drastically and in addition shifting simultaneously away from fossil fuels and hydrocarbons, who can sustainably cover market demand at least in the short and mid-term?

The Path to Global Decarbonization

The most important of these trends is the decarbonization of the global economy, spurred by the rapid development of renewable energy resources. Despite COVID-19, the renewable energy sector has demonstrated a higher growth rate compared to all previous years. According to the EIA, electricity generation from renewable sources (not counting hydropower) in the United States increased by 5% in 2019, while in the first nine months of 2020 the growth was already 12% per annum. This growth accelerated from 9.1% to 9.5% in the European Union according to Ember Research Center.

Of no less importance is the fact that investments in the renewable energies proved to be very resilient to the pandemic: the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates global investment in oil, gas and coal production in 2020 to decrease by 29% (to $689 billion), while in alternative energy by only 3% (to $301 billion). While the share of investments in renewable energies in the electricity generation sector increased to 67% (versus 65% in 2019). This is partly why the IEA improved its long-term forecast for average growth in global renewable energies demand in its latest World Energy Outlook (from 7.1% to 7.4% per annum).

Far from being newcomers

The future of hydrogen energy also became clearer at the end of 2020. In June, Germany published a national hydrogen strategy consisting of 38 steps with a total cost of €9 billion focused mainly on the production of hydrogen from renewable energy resources. The example of Germany was followed not only by the European Union, which presented its own hydrogen strategy in July, but also by Russia, which approved the Hydrogen Energy Development Plan. This is not a coincidence, but a very clear sign that cooperation in the energy sector remains a priority for both countries despite deep political differences. Moreover, the German hydrogen strategy recognizes cooperation with other market players: the document, which consists of 32 pages, makes use of the word ‘international’ 49 times. Russian and Eurasian companies are far from being newcomers to the hydrogen industry:

Hydrogen is already part of the process cycle of dozens of Russian and Eurasian refineries and petrochemical facilities, not to mention LNG and ammonia plants

  • Rosatom and Gazprom are going to start up their own hydrogen plants in 2024, which will use nuclear energy (yellow hydrogen) to reduce CO2 emissions, or steam methane reforming (blue hydrogen)
  • Another project is going to be implemented by RusHydro that will build a hydrogen plant in the Magadan Region by the mid-2020s together with the Japanese giant Kawasaki Heavy Industries
  • Growth points for the industry will also be the Sakhalin region, where local authorities intend to create a hydrogen cluster, and the cluster in the Arctic areas, where hydrogen technologies can solve the longstanding problem of heat and power supplies.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are investing more and more in solar and wind farms and will be soon suppliers of various types of Hydrogen.

Eurasia in general and Russia in particular, has a huge platform for capital-intensive ‘green’ hydrogen projects, which require a broad international cooperation as clearly demonstrated by the European NortH2 Project (which involves RWE, a German electricity producer, and Groningen Seaports, a Dutch operator of seaports, along with Shell, Gasunie and Equinor). Such projects in Russia can be supported by a very impressive wind-farms fleet, which is owned by the Russian subsidiary of Fortum, Rosnano and dedicated companies of Rosatom, such as NovaWind. Several other major companies can claim the role of initiators and investors, such as Novatek (already showed interest in the hydrogen supplies); Inter RAO (assumed investments in renewable energies in its new medium-term strategy), and, finally, the Russian Railways RZD, that became the first issuer of “green bonds” in Russia.

Therefore, Eurasian companies must not be misunderstood to be fresh newcomers to the hydrogen industry.

Together Towards a Green Future

The results of the 2020 environmental transparency rating (organized by WWF and Creon Group) clearly demonstrate the increasing achievements of Russian and Eurasian oil & gas companies in non-financial reporting and reduction of the environmental footprint. If in 2014, when the first rating was published, the average final score for Russian companies was 0.8, then this year it reached 1.2 (on a two-point scale).

However, the decisive factor will be the return of investments on ‘green’ hydrogen, which today is questionable for businesses, it is similar to the Gas-to-Liquid (GTL) technologies in the 1950s. In order to achieve progress in this area, all stakeholders need close interstate communications and an off-take Roadmap that would not be burdened with neither restrictions nor sanctions. In particular, in the construction of pipelines, which can be used in the future to exports of hydrogen or its feedstock.

Therefore, the administration of President Joseph Biden, perhaps, should listen to the voices of the German industrialists calling for a freeze on sanctions against pipelines that can serve the cause of boosting the Hydrogen era.

Removing any restrictions and freezing of sanctions will also bring the United States and Europe closer to a common ‘green’ future.

European Union has been working on the economy to become carbon-neutral until 2050. Russia is seeking to reduce emissions and diversify the energy exports. For bilateral cooperation, the “Green Deal” may be a challenge on the first glance, but these could turn into opportunities, said Florian Willershausen, BD Director of Creon Capital at the 9th seminar on the future of Russia-EU relations at November 2, organized by the Russian International Affairs Council, Delegation of the European Union to Russia and the Embassy of Germany.

Florian Willershausen, Director BD Creon Capital

Florian Willershausen
Florian Willershausen

In the EU some tend to think quietly that Russia lacks behind in terms of climate change mitigation, recent accidents such as the Norilsk oil spill may give even some evidence. But this perception is incorrect: Together with WWF Russia Creon Capital and Creon Group have been conducting a rating of oil and gas companies in terms of environmental transparency for seven years. This project shows a more and more open discussion of challenges, and the instruction of elaborated ecological policies to reduce the carbon-footprint.

At the same time, in Russia many experts sometimes tend to talk down the “Green Deal”, stating that there will always maintain a market for Russian oil and especially gas, since both resources are cheaper than elsewhere and available on the long run. But this argument is at least risky. EU countries are willing to subsidize the energy transition, so that higher energy costs are sufferable for private and corporate customers.

There are many challenges both sides must face.

Challenges for Russia

For Russia, of course, gas will remain an important export good to Europe in the next decades. But Europe already started significant investments in a hydrogen infrastructure to reduce fossils. Big oil and gas companies are now turning from fossil fuel merchants to green energy suppliers of tomorrow. For example, Shell has been replacing a gas-based steam reformer by a renewables-based electrolysis to produce carbon-free hydrogen for their Rhineland refinery in Germany – with the result of a drop in gas demand.

Some may say, that power generation on gas causes less emissions, than coal-based power generation, that is still durable in Germany. And that since coal remains strong for domestic and social political purposes, gas will stay forever. But there is no guarantee that electricity still will be produced from the fossils, once the coal power plants are shut down in near future of 2030s. This is a trend concerning not only Europe, but the whole world. The Israeli regulators are about to block the construction of a modern and a highly-efficient gas power plant by Siemens Energy. The Israel government switched to support only energy projects from renewables.

The energy landscape is changing dramatically and very fast.

Russia cannot foresee the regulatory sticks to come, for example taxes on pollution or custom duties for carbon-intense products. But Russian enterprises should be prepared that the future of the fossils is in jeopardy.

Challenges for the European Union

And there are also tough challenges from the “Green Deal”the European Union has to face.

It is naïve to think that all energy demands can be covered from renewables at the current stage. Or that all hydrogen to being imported to Europe must be “green”. With all respect to the “Green Deal” and the growing share of renewables in the energy mix, there will not be enough renewable-based hydrogen available in Europe. It is unfeasible, when the entire passenger car sectors will shift to electricity, while coal and nuclear power plants in Germany are being shut down. But instead of hoping to increase their gas supplies to the EU, Russia might promote carbon-neutral hydrogen through a jointly developed infrastructure.

This situation offers a perfect framework for synergy effects.

Framework for synergies between Russia and the European Union

Apart from the challenges, there is motivation by the financial sector to bring incentives in terms of cheap financing for green projects. The investors demand money to be spent in green projects, which gain cheap funding. EU green bond market is open for Russian projects despite sanctions.

European companies provide plenty of high-end solutions in the fields of energy efficiency, waste treatment and ecological monitoring, which are highly demanded in Russia right now. These solutions must be adapted and localized to the Russian context.

Russia can keep its role as major energy supplier. The country exported in 2019 more than 150 billion qm³ of gas to the EU, yet a very important an irreplaceable market for Russian gas producers. The “greener” the economy becomes, the more will the gas demand decline. So Russia must prepare itself to produce carbon-neutral hydrogen based on natural gas and LNG.

At the same time, Russian business should be ready to shape supply chains for clean energy proactively. This approach works very well, as can already be witnessed in Germany. The Russian LNG producer Novatek invests in a small-scale LNG terminal in Rostock, from which in short run the fuel will be provided to ships and trucks further downstream. For the next 20 years, LNG is the better alternative to diesel and heavy oil, not yet hydrogen.

The governments in both countries should encourage and support such projects also for synthetic polymers, as well as for the hydrogen infrastructure. Both Russia and European countries need to start joint research and development programs to produce blue or turquoise hydrogen, and not only green hydrogen, where the entire European discussion on hydrogen turns around.

Both Russia and Europe share the vision of a long-term climate neutrality, aiming to reduce harming climate emissions and to develop new value chains in green energy. This requires financial support also from governments and development banks. In this context it would be helpful to lift financial sanctions on Russia at least by a degree development banks are allowed to cooperate with Russia and finance joint “green” projects.

Last but not least, the energy cooperation can enhance the political ties between EU and Russia.

Recently, Germany declared an energy partnership with Ukraine with focus on hydrogen. Further partnerships between EU members and other countries are being set up. An EU-Russia Dialogue on green economy and clean energy is urgently needed. And the business demands a bilateral hydrogen partnership driven from the top official level. This kind of cooperation would be very fruitful and beneficial for both sides to fulfill decarbonization goals until 2050.