* Yamal project could be completed earlier than expected
* Arctic LNG 2 construction in 2019 subject to final decision
* Both projects could pump 70 mln T vs Qatar’s 77 mln T
* Tighter U.S. sanctions do not impact technology purchases
By Sabina Zawadzki
LONDON, June 23 (Reuters) - Russian gas producer Novatek aims to topple Qatar as the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas as it gets closer to completing its first LNG project, a top executive said, batting away concerns about U.S. sanctions on the sector.
The country’s largest non-state gas producer is expected to start exporting LNG from the first phase of the Yamal project, situated far above the Arctic circle, towards the end of this year and may bring forward its final stage by six months, CFO Mark Gyetvay said.
But it is the inception of Novatek’s second, and Russia’s third, large-scale LNG project called Arctic LNG 2 that would transform the company, headed by Russia’s richest businessman Leonid Mikhelson, into a top global producer within a decade.
“We have huge ambitions to be just as large as Qatar is as one country, but as one company,” Gyetvay said in London on the sidelines of an energy forum.
Qatar and Russia have long been rivals in global gas markets. Qatar’s supplies came under the spotlight in the past month after Saudi Arabia cut economic and diplomatic ties, in a move ratcheting up a wider violent and diplomatic conflict in the Middle East.
Russia’s energy industry, meanwhile, has been hamstrung by European and U.S. sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, with Europeans particularly sensitive to any potential Russian gas supply cuts in retaliation for political tensions in the region.
In terms of LNG, Qatar is by far the largest exporter, selling 77.2 million tonnes of the liquefied gas and accounting for just under 30 percent of market share in 2016, according to energy research group IHS and the International Gas Union.
Russia that year was seventh with exports of 10.8 million tonnes and a 4 percent market share. The Yamal project, once all stages are complete, will export an additional 16.5 million tonnes, which would put Russia, already the world’s largest crude oil exporter, in third place just below Australia.
Of progress on Yamal, Gyetvay said the second phase would be ready in the second half of next year while the third could be completed by the first half of 2019, rather than the second, as all facilities were expected to be delivered this year.
“If we do Arctic LNG 2 - we’ll start the process of construction in 2019 if we make that FID (final investment decision) - the plan is to make sure we have the first LNG in the market by 2023,” he said.
Mikhelson said on March 29 production from the two projects on the Yamal and neighbouring Gydan peninsula could produce more than 70 million tonnes annually - within spitting distance of Qatar’s exports.
And President Vladimir Putin told Mikhelson a day later Russia not only could but would become the largest LNG exporter should the pace of development continue.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih expressed the Kingdom’s interest in participating in the Arctic LNG 2 project earlier this month although Gyetvay said it was too early to comment on any future foreign investors.
Qatar already has a large investment in Russia’s energy industry in the form of the 19.5 percent stake in Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, that it bought last year with trading group Glencore.
Western sanctions on Russian companies including Novatek “obviously had an effect” on the Yamal project, Gyetvay said: “We had to revert to the use of Russian and Chinese finance”.
But for now, he does not see further impact even as Washington tightened those sanctions because they concern financing rather than technology, which Novatek is free to purchase from anywhere as it needs for its projects. (Reporting by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Alison Williams)