6 Min Read
* Regional supply crunch spreading
* Putin price crackdown seen contributing to shortages
* Oil firms raise exports, 40 pct more fuel abroad this year
By Maxim Nazarov and Jessica Bachman
MOSCOW, April 27 (Reuters) - Russia, the world's largest oil producer, faces a regional fuel supply crisis that could quickly spread after an order by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to curb domestic pump prices led oil firms to increase export volumes.
Shortages that have been building since Putin told oil firms in February to restrain retail prices came to a head last weekend, when almost all independently owned gasoline stations in the Altai region ran out of fuel. [ID:nnLDE6BC0FK]
If they spread, the shortages could eventually hurt the popularity of Putin, who as the head of the government bears direct responsibility for economic policy, months before a presidential election which is due next March.
Motorists in Altai, a Siberian region to the north of Kazakhstan, are now queuing in long lines at stations belonging to major oil companies, primarily Rosneft (ROSN.MM) and Gazprom Neft (SIBN.MM), which are still selling fuel.
"Today our drivers have been arriving late to pick up clients because it's so difficult to find a petrol station with fuel," Yelena, a taxi dispatcher in the nearby city of Novosibirsk, told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday.
But not all drivers can fill up -- the companies are limiting sales to 20 litres per driver in Novosibirsk, Altai and other Siberian regions, and then only for those with customer loyalty cards, regional traders said.
"We are barely, just barely, able to keep our own petrol stations supplied in Altai, so our tank farms are not selling any fuel on the wholesale market or to independent petrol stations," said a source at Rosneft, Russia's No. 1 oil firm.
Traders at Rosneft's regional depots said their tank farms in the region surrounding Russia's second city of St Petersburg, as well as the Southern, Urals and Siberian districts, are unable to supply the wholesale market and have started limiting deliveries to Rosneft's own petrol stations.
The owners of independent depots in the Moscow region, who purchase gasoline from refiners and sell it on the wholesale market to independent gas stations, to other companies or on oil product exchanges, said the situation in Moscow was no better.
"We have been sitting practically empty for the whole month of April. There is absolutely nowhere to buy fuel," the director of the Serpukhov tank farm in southern Moscow said.
The Serpukhov tank farm, which also operates a string of gas stations in Moscow, used to buy fuel from Gazprom Neft's Moscow and Yaroslavl refineries, from Bashneft's (BANE.MM) Ufa refinery and TNK-BP's Ryazan refinery.
"None of them are selling now. And the lines for gasoline at Volodarsky go on for kilometres," he said, referring to queues of tanker trucks at a huge Moscow oil product storage facility operated by Russia's oil pipeline monopoly Transneft TRNF.MM.
For a graphic comparing the price of A-92 gasoline in Europe and Russia click on r.reuters.com/hus29r
Market participants said there was no way Russia could have avoided a gasoline deficit after Putin and Russia's cartel office intervened to curb what they called speculative pricing on the domestic market.
After the crackdown producers had little choice but to drop their pump prices, but continuing price increases on global markets has prompted producers to cut domestic sales and sharply increase exports.
Putin's move was one of several administrative measures -- including a ban on grain exports and steps to limit power price increases -- aimed at curbing mounting inflation pressures less than a year before a presidential election.
Putin, who was president from 2000-08, has not ruled out returning to Russia's highest office, while his successor, Dmitry Medvedev is also considering running for a second term.
The two rule in a so-called 'tandem' and have said they will agree who runs.
In the first quarter of 2011, Russia exported 2.14 million tonnes of gasoline by rail, or 40 percent more than in the same period in 2010. Around 85 percent of Russian gasoline is both exported and dispatched domestically by rail.
Domestic deliveries, meanwhile, fell 6 percent to 5.7 million tonnes from 6.1 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2010. Total gasoline production for the quarter, however, remained roughly stable at 8.815 million tonnes.
Drivers in the Moscow region, as of April 25, paid on average 24.45 roubles ($0.880) per litre as prices have been restrained since February. Drivers in Russia's more remote regions pay slightly higher prices.
Global gasoline prices have been climbing along with crude since Februray to 2-1/2 year highs as Libyan rebels intensified their revolt against forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi and forced the north African OPEC nation to halt oil exports.
But even if the government allows producers to raise pump prices in line with global market trends, analysts and oil traders do not think the market will stabilise soon.
Demand for gasoline rises in summer and will increase as Russians head out of the cities during holidays in May.
"Increasing prices will not help the product to return to market. Where will it come from when it has all been sent abroad?" one trader asked. (Additional Reporting by Alexey Yarkovoy; writing by Jessica Bachman; editing by Douglas Busvine)