* Putin says LNG export rights would help gas industry
* Sechin says export rights needed for offshore gas
NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia Feb 13 Russian President
Vladimir Putin faced open pressure from a close ally on
Wednesday to allow offshore gas producers to export liquefied
natural gas, which could weaken Gazprom's monopoly and force
tough reforms on the gas industry.
In an unusually frank plea for change in the closely
controlled industry that supplies Russia with half its tax
revenues, Sechin - who has been close to Putin for nearly two
decades - said Russia must move quickly to stake out positions
on fast-growing Asian markets before rival suppliers did.
"If we do not take a share of these markets, others will,"
Sechin told Putin and a group of cabinet officials and oil
industry chieftains assembled for a meeting of a Kremlin
commission on energy policy.
With Putin presiding, Sechin and the head of the exploration
division at ExxonMobil also signed agreements expanding
cooperation with Rosneft, including a study of a possible plant
as a possible means of kick-starting stalled plans to sell gas
from their Pacific oil project, Sakhalin-1.
Putin told industry and government officials assembled at
his suburban residence on Wednesday that among options to help
the gas industry develop, Russia should "consider gradual
liberalization of LNG exports."
But as he has in the past, Putin balked at moves that might
chip away at Gazprom's monopoly on sales of Russian gas, which
could expose Gazprom to competition from Russian rivals and
force deeper reforms at the firm.
He fired questions at Sechin after the Rosneft CEO finished
his speech, demanding to know how offshore LNG would be
delivered, where it would be sold and whether it could end up in
Europe, where it would compete with Gazprom's pipeline gas.
"We have to think about the volumes of investment in new
projects and rise in demand and weigh them against the
contracting factor," he added in an apparent reference to
Gazprom's legal right to market Russian gas exports.
The Sakhalin study underlines the problem of LNG for Putin:
though he has called for a rethink of Russia's gas export
strategy to focus on LNG and Asia, the projects positioned to
expand Russia's LNG capacity are outside Gazprom control.
Putin has expressed alarm at Gazprom's weakening hand in its
main gas market, the European Union, and called for a rethink of
Russia's gas export strategy to focus on LNG and Asia.
Public debate over an exemption to the Gazprom export
monopoly for producers of LNG was prompted by a request by
Gazprom rival Novatek, which may not be able to put up
gas exports as collateral on loans for its own Arctic LNG
project if it has to sell the gas through Gazprom.
Novatek CEO Leonid Mikhelson was on hand for the meeting but
did not speak, and the request was not discussed directly.
Access to export markets would be a boon to independent
producers such as Novatek, currently confined to the domestic
market, but pose a threat to Gazprom in the longer term if it
has to compete with Novatek and other lower-cost Russian
For now, Russia has only one operating natural gas
liquefaction plant, operated by Gazprom, Royal Dutch
Shell and Mitsui at Sakhalin-2, which like the
ExxonMobil consortium is operated under production sharing.
The ExxonMobil-led Sakhalin-1 consortium, which includes
Rosneft, has resisted pressure to sell the gas to Gazprom and
sought other ways to monetize the project's gas reserves.
Permission to export LNG independently of Gazprom could end that