* U.S. LNG exports threaten Russia’s gas market dominance
* First U.S. LNG delivery due for Lithuania, talks ongoing-sources
* Gazprom’s public gas auctions to boost sales, head off rivals
By Oleg Vukmanovic and Barbara Lewis
MILAN/ BRUSSELS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The first export of U.S. gas to Europe will head for Lithuania, two industry sources say, a gesture to the Baltic states, reliant on Russia for supply, and the likely first shot in a price war over market share in Moscow’s backyard.
The February delivery will be of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported by sea to custom built terminals, challenging Russia’s land locked pipelines, as producers turn from the wilting Asian market to Europe.
Europe has attained strategic importance for the United States, where companies that have already invested $60 billion in building four giant export schemes are offered a lifeline by the continent’s deep markets and dozens of under-used import terminals.
Talks are ongoing on the inaugural U.S. shipment, though Lithuania’s state-run Lietuvos Energija wants a discount to Russian piped deliveries, one source said.
With U.S. exports set to top 60 million tonnes/year in 2019, EU regulators see LNG as the solution to rising Russian market dominance as they challenge the legality of Russia’s Gazprom’s pipeline strategy.
The European Commission says it will also scrutinise Gazprom’s planned Nord Stream pipeline expansion to Germany which is part of the company’s plan to boost European sales by offering gas direct into freely-traded markets.
But for all the Commission’s LNG enthusiasm, analysts and utility sources are split over how much U.S. gas will reach Europe.
“If you have massive U.S. LNG building up in 2017 and 2018, new Australian supply and Qatar - this means lots of LNG into Europe, at that point Russia will have to fight,” senior gas analyst Thierry Bros of Societe Generale said.
The question is whether Gazprom will defend market share by upping output and lowering prices or by restraining production, as it did during the last gas market glut in 2008-2009, and waiting for prices to recover, Stephen O‘Rourke, director of gas research at Wood Mackenzie, said.
He said Gazprom would need to bring spot gas prices below $4 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), versus around $5.65 per mmBtu now, to shut Europe off to U.S. imports - a level Goldman Sachs expects could be reached by 2018/2019.
Ukraine, which could lose its role as the main transit route to the EU if Gazprom pulls off its Nord Stream expansion to Germany, says Gazprom is well-placed to fight off rivals.
Western sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine may delay but will not thwart Russian gas expansion in Europe, Ukraine’s grid operator Naftogaz Ukrainy said in a letter, seen by Reuters, to the European Commission.
Gazprom declined to comment on strategy.
Flattered by a weak rouble, its production costs have shrunk while profits on dollar-denominated sales of gas to Europe have soared, making the producer more resilient to lower prices.
It is also sitting on huge new reserves and has spare pipeline capacity with which to boost exports.
But faced with more U.S. gas as well as low-cost Qatari LNG, a report by the Russian Academy of Sciences says “price dumping” will erode Gazprom revenues.
U.S. LNG’s edge has already been blunted by plunging oil prices that make new Australian supply preferable to Asian buyers, who are gradually offloading their U.S. commitments in Europe.
Even if Russian gas retains its sway in Europe, the coming of U.S. LNG has already changed behaviour.
Gazprom held its first public auction for spot gas supplies in October, a U-turn on previous policy built around sticking with long-term deals.
It now plans to launch gas auctions next year for the Baltic region - which happens to be the first landing point of new U.S. LNG. (Additional reporting by Edward McAllister in New York, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Olesya Astakhova in Moscow and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by William Hardy)