MOSCOW Rosneft has cut its output forecast for a field that is pivotal to its Asian export strategy, even as boss Igor Sechin pledges more oil for China and seeks cash backing from Beijing to fund ambitious expansion plans and ease debt.
The world's largest listed oil company by output, Rosneft has cut the forecast for the Vankor field in East Siberia, according to a document obtained by Reuters.
The state oil major declined to comment on Vankor's future production, but said it would meet all its supply commitments without having to divert westbound oil flows to cover the new Chinese volumes.
Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft and some analysts have questioned whether Rosneft has the oil to honour its long-term contracts.
Output at Vankor, which feeds in to the Eastern Siberia - Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, will only reach 23 million tonnes (462,000 barrels per day) in 2016, according to a forecast on a regional government web site to which access was blocked.
Vankor will pump 21.3 million tonnes this year (428,000 bpd) - below a peak initially seen at 25 million tonnes, according to a copy emailed by an official to Reuters.
With proven oil reserves of 1.4 billion barrels, Vankor is the biggest Russian oilfield to enter production in 25 years. It is vital for the state oil major to meet its growing commitments to supply Asian markets.
"Rosneft's production plans will without doubt ensure that all oil supply commitments are met," the company said in comments emailed to Reuters.
"In the event of possible deviations, existing agreements and the most profitable supply routes will be prioritised."
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On Tuesday, Rosneft signed an outline deal in Beijing to supply 200,000 bpd to Sinopec for 10 years, pushing oil sales to China announced by Sechin over 1 million bpd.
Sechin has ramped up supply deals with China to win market share and secure up-front payments he needs to sustain both Rosneft's ambitious exploration plans and its net debt load of 1.85 trillion roubles ($58 billion).
That borrowing was swollen by the takeover of Anglo-Russian venture TNK-BP by Rosneft, which expects to increase oil production to 4.4 million bpd over the next seven years from 4.2 million bpd this year.
That will not, however, be enough to respond to breakneck growth in Chinese imports, which analysts Woodmac say may reach 9.2 million bpd by 2020.
China, holder of the world's largest forex reserves, is in a position to finance Russian oil exploration through deals that include a pre-paid component, which was reported in the Sinopec deal to be 20-30 percent of the overall cost.
Rosneft has also offered equity in another field in Eastern Siberia to China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), in a departure from earlier deals that secured future supplies against multi-billion-dollar loans.
Rosneft and CNPC agreed last week to jointly develop Srednebotuobinsk, a greenfield project that is forecast to pump more than 100,000 bpd in 2017.
Analysts say that Rosneft, now with even stronger backing from CNPC, may start snapping up smaller upstream assets along the ESPO pipeline route to add to projects under development.
"No matter what asset is on the market - small or big - it is on the radar of Igor Ivanovich (Sechin)," said Vitaly Kryukov, an analyst with IFD Kapital brokerage in Moscow.
Vankor is strategically vital to Rosneft. Its location on Russia's pipeline network enables it to pump oil west to Europe or east via ESPO to the Pacific coast or to China.
Rosneft has agreed with Transneft to double the capacity of a pipeline spur to China to 600,000 bpd by 2018, to honour supply contracts set this year with CNPC.
If logistical headaches render direct supplies to China uneconomic, Rosneft could resort to oil swaps, which would allow it to rely on other firms' crude flows as long as it provides matching volumes elsewhere.
"There are options for manoeuvre - swap operations are widely used, so (oil) flows might be redirected," said Denis Borisov, a director at accounting firm Ernst & Young.
Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin for two decades, dismisses concerns that Rosneft will fail to deliver.
"I urge you not to worry," he said recently. "We will align our production projects with refining ones and our shipment commitments."
Rosneft shares fell by 1 percent and are 6 percent below the peak set when the TNK-BP deal was announced last year.
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Douglas Busvine and William Hardy)