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(Adds Deputy PM Sechin comment in paragraph 6)
By Tanya Mosolova and Denis Dyomkin
PRIGORODNOYE, Russia, Feb 18 Russia inaugurated
a $22 billion Pacific natural gas project on Wednesday that will
allow the Kremlin to extend its reach in world energy markets
from its European stronghold into Asia and North America.
Sakhalin Energy, controlled by Russian gas export monopoly
Gazprom (GAZP.MM), will this year supply about 50 cargoes of
liquefied natural gas from the project, which became a focal
point in a state drive to reassert control over its resources.
President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would be able to
supply 5 percent of world demand for the super-cooled gas once
the Sakhalin-2 project reaches full capacity next year.
"This strengthens Russia's position as a major energy market
participant," he said at an opening ceremony on the southern tip
of Sakhalin island, in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Medvedev also repeated calls for closer ties between Russia
and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
and the club of top gas exporters. His previous calls have sent
jitters through consumers, although worries subsided after
Russia made no formal pledges to reduce oil output or exports.
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who oversees the energy
sector, said Russia would send a delegation to the next OPEC
meeting in March.
The Sakhalin-2 project, in which Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L)
owns a minority stake after cedeing control to Gazprom, is the
first LNG plant in Russia, the world's largest producer of gas.
"This year, the project will ship around 50
145,000-cubic-metre tankers of LNG and about 50 cargoes of oil,
each 700,000 barrels," Sakhalin Energy Chief Executive Ian Craig
told a news briefing ahead of the launch.
The plant will ultimately produce 9.6 million tonnes per
year of LNG. A Sakhalin Energy spokesman said total LNG volumes
were equivalent to 3.2 million tonnes for this year, about half
of earlier government estimates of 6.0 million tonnes.
The amount is expected to rise to about 160 cargoes as the
facility reaches full capacity next year.
About 65 percent of the plant's output will be shipped to
eight companies in Japan, the world's top consumer of LNG, with
the rest sold to South Korea and the LNG-hungry North American
market via a Mexican terminal, then on to the U.S. West Coast.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said the plant would supply
7.2 percent of his country's LNG imports. "To have an LNG plant
in close proximity to Japan has been Japan's dream for many
years," he said at the launch ceremony.
FIRST CARGO IN MARCH
Sakhalin-2, a two-day boat ride from Tokyo, is the world's
most modern LNG facility. Gas from offshore deposits is chilled
into liquid at minus 160 degrees Celsius for shipment by tanker.
The first cargo is expected to load at the end of March,
said Hisanori Yoshimura, a member of the board of directors of
Mitsubishi Corp (8058.T), which also holds a stake in the
project. Mitsui (8031.T) is the other Japanese shareholder.
Tokyo Gas Co (9531.T) and Tokyo Electric Power Co (9501.T)
are likely to split the first cargo, company officials told
Reuters at the launch ceremony.
The first tanker, the 145,000-cubic-metre Grand Aniva, was
built by Mitsubishi in Japan and is owned 60 percent by Nippon
Yusen K.K. (9101.T), Japan's biggest ocean shipping firm, and 40
percent by Russian shipping group Sovcomflot.
At 290 metres in length, the 15-storey tanker is the biggest
commercial vessel in Russia.
South Korea, second only to Japan as an LNG buyer, has
secured about 1.5 million tonnes of LNG for the next 20 years,
its Energy Ministry said. Shipments from Sakhalin to South Korea
will take three days, compared with 15 from the Middle East.
On a temporary stage at the plant, the heads of the four
shareholders pushed a symbolic button to mark the launch of the
plant. Relations between the companies were not always so warm.
The battle for control of Sakhalin-2, which is launching
after several delays, became symbolic of resource nationalism in
Russia and the state's ability to overturn previous deals.
Gazprom bought control of the venture in 2006 after a
prolonged crisis that forced Shell, the project's former leader,
and its partners to reduce their holdings.
Gazprom Deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev said the
profitability of the project would not be harmed by the drop in
oil prices CLc1 to below $40 a barrel from July's $147 peak.
"This isn't surprising, because global oil prices were below
$20 a barrel when the project began," he told reporters.
And Japan seems unshaken by the history of the deal. The
country does not have easy access to pipelines and last year
imported 69.26 million tonnes of LNG, with more than half
supplied by Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
(Additional reporting by Angela Moon in Seoul, writing by Robin
Paxton; Editing by Keiron Henderson)