Meet the man who transformed Russia’s role in the global oil supply
Energy minister Alexander Novak treads a fine line so his country can take advantage of fluctuating demand
Moscow — When Saudi Arabian oil installations sustained major attacks last month, Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak, was ready to ramp up production to fill the supply gap.
“If there had been a need we would have been ready for co-ordinated action,” Novak said in an interview in Moscow. “We had a call with the Saudi minister.… He said they were managing. And I felt there was no need for any extraordinary measures.”
In his seven years in the job, Novak has managed to persuade Russian oil companies to build significant spare capacity during output cuts, bringing his country into the ranks of swing producers — those able to adjust oil output in the short term to meet fluctuations in market demand. Previously, only Saudi Arabia — and to an extent its neighbours the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — had such an ability to cushion against oil supply volatility.
So when Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, called Novak two days after the attacks, he knew Russia could increase production fairly quickly by between 0.3% and 0.5% of global supply, if Saudi production problems were to last longer than expected.
He confirmed that Russian spare capacity was about 500,000 barrels per day (bpd). “We have said we have some 300,000 bpd of spare capacity but today our potential is even higher because companies kept investing” during the production cuts, he said.
Born in then Soviet Ukraine, Novak spent the early part of his career in Norilsk in the Arctic, where he studied economics and worked for mining giant Norilsk Nickel, before becoming local deputy governor and then deputy finance minister. As one of Russia’s longest-serving energy ministers, Novak quickly expanded his portfolio to become the head of intergovernmental commissions with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — a key area of diplomacy for President Vladimir Putin.
One of his biggest successes was the co-operation deal agreed with Opec in 2016. The move, Russia’s first such pact with the producer group in which both sides delivered on their pledges, saved oil prices from near collapse and provided the Russian budget with tens of billions of dollars in additional revenues.
Prince Abdulaziz said last week that Russian co-operation with Opec countries was first discussed when Novak attended Saudi King Abdullah’s funeral in January 2015.
Opec secretary-general Mohammad Barkindo said on Monday he is counting on Russia to help soothe tensions between Opec members Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose relations have hit new lows after the September 14 attacks. Last week, Novak organised the first meeting since the attacks between Prince Abdulaziz and Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh on the sidelines of Russia’s top energy forum.
Saudi Arabia has blamed regional rival Iran for the attacks, a charge Tehran denies.
“Opec is a mature organisation. Despite differences on a bilateral level, it always manages to find consensus on a multilateral level,” Novak said.
Inside Russia, Novak faces calls from the finance ministry for higher revenues from oil, juxtaposed against demands from companies such as Rosneft for lower taxes. Rosneft is run by one of Putin’s closest allies, Igor Sechin.
Novak, for his part, is not viewed as a member of Putin’s inner circle, mostly made up of old friends from his time in St Petersburg. Nevertheless, Novak has persuaded the industry to stick to joint production cuts with Opec despite initial vehement opposition from Sechin, who argued that Russia was losing market share to the US, where oil output is booming. Novak’s response was to tell oil companies they had more to gain from higher prices and lower output rather than pumping at will and seeing prices crash further.
Novak is now pushing for a major tax overhaul to allow Russia to compete better with the US and bring into production up to 10-billion tons of currently uneconomic reserves. With reserves big enough to sustain oil output for 50 years and gas for more than 100 years, Russia might need to monetise its reserves more quickly, Novak says, even though he doesn’t expect the world to cut oil use to 2050.
“The speed of reserves monetisation is an issue faced by many countries ... Markets change, forecasts change — you need to constantly monitor how the situation evolves,” he said.
With plans to expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) output five-fold to 140Mt by 2030 and to extract currently uneconomic oil reserves, Russia is effectively speeding up its reserves monetisation, Novak said.
“In the LNG market, competition will be very severe. And we are ready to compete,” he told Reuters. He added that most new energy volumes would flow to Asia, where demand is growing. Over the past decade, the share of Asian consumers of Russian energy export volumes has grown to 32% from 12.5% and is set to increase further, he said.
Putin has pledged to diversify energy exports amid pressure from US and EU sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine. Novak said exports to Asia are rising mainly because of growing demand for energy there rather than politics.
“I don't think about sanctions every day ... We will adapt to any circumstances. Show me a single example where sanctions worked. Yes, they hurt economically but they never achieve the initial goals ... Just look at Iran,” he said.