The European Commission Settles the Long-running Antitrust Case with Gazprom by Agreeing on Commitments

By Kristina Povazanova

After almost seven years, the European Commission (“Commission”) settled its long-running antitrust case with the Russian energy giant, PJSC Gazprom and its wholly-own subsidiary Gazprom Export LLC (“Gazprom”), concerning the abuse of a dominant position according to Article 102 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”) that may have hindered the free flow of gas at competitive prices in Central and Eastern European countries (jointly referred to as “CEE”).[1]

On 24 May 2018, the Commission adopted a decision[2] in accordance with Article 9(1) Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2003 of 16 December 2002 on the implementation of the rules on competition laid down in Articles 81 and 82 of the Treaty[3],[4]  (“Regulation 1/2003”) making commitments offered by Gazprom legally binding. These are meant to facilitate the integration of CEE gas markets and to enable efficient cross-border gas flow in contrast to alleged abuse of Gazprom’s dominant position on those markets.

 

Procedural aspects of Gazprom case

From 2011 to 2015, the Commission undertook several investigative measures to assess the situation in CEE gas markets. These included on-the-spot inspections in accordance with Article 20(4) Regulation 1/2003 as well as various information inquiries. On the basis of these investigative steps, the Commission opened formal proceedings with an intention to adopt a decision under Chapter III of the Regulation 1/2003.[5] In its Statement of Objections (“SO”) of 22 April 2015, the Commission came to a preliminary conclusion that Gazprom is a dominant player in CEE markets for the upstream wholesale supply of natural gas, and that it might have abused its dominant position due to three potentially abusive practices:

  • Gazprom included territorial restrictions in its gas supply contracts with wholesalers and other customers. These restrictions comprised: 1) destination clauses that obliged wholesalers to use the purchased gas only in a specific territory; and 2) export bans that prevented the free flow of natural gas to other countries. Gazprom required the wholesalers to obtain its approval to export gas to other countries and obstructed the change of location to which the natural gas was being delivered (the so-called gas delivery points). The aim of such restrictions may have been to hinder the integrity of the internal market by supposedly re-instating CEE national borders for the gas flow in exchange for securing Gazprom’s pricing policy in CEE gas markets.
  • According to the SO, territorial restrictions went hand-in-hand with an unfair pricing policy in several CEE countries. As a result of these practices, wholesalers were charged prices that were significantly higher than Gazprom’s comparable costs or benchmark prices. This may have been caused by Gazprom’s price formulae that linked the contractual gas prices to oil indexation disregarding prices in European liquid gas hubs.
  • Last, but not least, the Commission pointed out that Gazprom leveraged its dominant position in relevant CEE gas markets by stipulating conditions for gas supplies and gas prices in Bulgaria and Poland that were dependent on obtaining unrelated infrastructure commitments, like investments in Gazprom’s pipeline projects (e.g. South Stream project).

It wasn’t long before Gazprom sent its reply to the SO, disputing the Commission’s preliminary assessment. As the world’s largest natural gas reserves holder and exclusive undertaking to export natural gas from Russia, Gazprom’s natural gas exports to Europe reached 194.4 billion cubic meters in 2017.[6] The Commissioner, however, made it clear that all companies that operate in the European market have to comply with EU rules, notwithstanding their status.

 

Proposal of the First Commitments

To address the Commission’s antitrust concerns, Gazprom proposed the first set of commitments (“First Commitments”) to ensure the free flow of natural gas at competitive prices in CEE gas markets.[7] However, one must bear in mind that Gazprom tried to challenge the Commission from the very beginning. In its First Commitments, Gazprom stated that “this proposal of Commitments does not constitute an acknowledgement that Article 102 TFEU or Article 54 EAA Agreement or indeed any other substantive rule of EU competition law has been breached.”[8]

The First Commitments offered by Gazprom were regarded by the Commission as addressing competition concerns in CEE gas markets. Gazprom addressed all three issues, by ensuring that:

  • It will refrain from using and will not introduce in the future any territorial restrictions, such as destination clauses and export bans or any other measures having equivalent effect, in their gas supply contracts, effect of which could be the limitation or prohibition of customer’s ability to resell natural gas supplied by Gazprom or to transfer the natural gas to another territory. With respect to market segmentation and specifically the isolation of Bulgarian gas market, Gazprom offered to change relevant gas supply and gas transport contracts to allow Bulgaria to conclude interconnection agreements with other EU Member States (mainly Greece). This commitment, together with the adjustment of the current gas allocation method, would enable the Bulgarian transmission system operator to gain full control of the gas flow in Bulgaria. In relation to gas delivery points that are considered as crucial for the free flow of gas in CEE gas markets, Gazprom committed to allow its CEE customers to request all or part of their gas volume to be delivered to Bulgaria or Baltic States instead of their delivery points.[9]
  • It will introduce the price revision clause in gas supply contracts to address the Commission’s unfair pricing This will apply to customers whose gas supply contracts do not contain a price revision clause. Otherwise, Gazprom committed to amend existing price revision clauses to enable its customers to request the price revision if either the economic situation in the European gas market is subject to change or the price does not reflect current trends and developments at liquid gas hubs in Western Europe. Gazprom proposed that its customers can request such a revision every two years. Importantly, Gazprom agreed that in case of the absence of mutual agreement on the revised price within 120 days, the conflict matter will be referred to arbitration.
  • It will allow Bulgarian partners to leave the South Stream project and will refrain from claiming damages on the basis of this cancelation for the initial period of eight consecutive years. This commitment should have addressed the Commission’s concern that Gazprom gained unjustified advantages resulting from stipulating conditions for gas supplies and gas prices in Bulgaria dependent on obtaining unrelated infrastructure commitments.[10]

 

Market Test

On 16 March 2017, the Commission invited interested third parties to comment and submit their observation on the First Commitments, pursuant to Article 24(7) Regulation 1/2003. The Commission received forty-four responses from interested third parties that dealt with various aspects of the First Commitments, ranging from technical elements to substantive issues, such as: a) Gazprom’s responsibility for gas quality at entry points to either Bulgaria or changed gas delivery hubs, b) creation of bi-directional basis mechanism between gas delivery points of the Baltic States/Bulgaria and Central/Eastern Europe, or c) methodology behind the fee to be charged by Gazprom for a change of gas delivery point.

 

Final Commitments

In response to these observations, Gazprom submitted a modified version of the First Commitments on 15 March 2018 (“Commitments”). It addressed various minor and major comments. Among the most important modifications, Gazprom agreed to:

  • delete the reference that all commitments are only made for the duration of the Commitments;
  • remain liable for the gas quality at the entry point to Bulgaria;
  • offer the change of delivery points on a bi-directional basis in CEE gas markets;
  • remain liable for non-delivery of gas to changed gas delivery points except of force majeure and maintenance;
  • reduce the service fee for a swap-like operation including bi-directional flow;
  • extend the scope of price revision clause by offering it to new customers as well;
  • specify what are the benchmark prices for liquid hubs in continental Europe by listing TTF gas hub in the Netherlands and NCG hub in Germany;
  • place the arbitration place for the price revision conflict matter within the EU;
  • refrain from bringing any claims related to the South Stream project for a period of fifteen years.

 

Conclusion

Despite the strong opposition from few CEE Member States (e.g. Poland)[11], the Commission is convinced that the Commitments impose positive forward-looking set of obligations on Gazprom to enable the free flow of gas in CEE gas markets at competitive prices. Their purpose is to bring Gazprom’s market behavior in compliance with EU competition rules and to allow customers to benefit from effective gas competition between various gas suppliers and supply sources. By adopting the decision in accordance with Article 9(1) Regulation 1/2003, the Commission made the Commitments legally binding on Gazprom and any legal entity that is directly or indirectly controlled by Gazprom for the period of eight years.

In case that Gazprom breaks the Commitments, the Commission can impose a fine of up to 10% of the company’s annual turnover, without having to prove an infringement of EU competition rules.

[1] Namely Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia.

[2] Case AT.39816 – Upstream Gas Supplies in Central and Eastern Europe [2018] OJ C258/07

[3] Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2003 of 16 December 2002 on the implementation of the rules on competition laid down in Articles 81 and 82 of the Treaty; Official Journal L 001, 04/01/2003 P. 0001 – 0025

[4] Article 9(1) Regulation 1/2003 provides: “Where the Commission intends to adopt a decision requiring that an infringement be brought to an end and the undertakings concerned offer commitments to meet the concerns expressed to them by the Commission in its preliminary assessment, the Commission may by decision make those commitments binding on the undertakings.”

[5] The Commission opened proceedings on 31 August 2012.

[6] http://www.gazprom.com/about/marketing/europe/ (online; available on 28 July 2018)

[7] The first set of Commitments was submitted to the European Commission on 14 February 2017.

[8] Commitment Proposal – Non-confidential Version http://ec.europa.eu/competition/antitrust/cases/g2/gazprom_commitments.pdf (online; available on 20 July 2018)

[9] In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia the gas connecting infrastructure such as mechanisms for reverse flow and interconnectors has significantly improved. On the other hand, the Baltic States and Bulgaria are still very much isolated from the rest of CEE Member States.

[10] As regards the Yamal Pipeline, the Commission’s investigation showed that the situation cannot be changed by this antitrust procedure due to the impact of an intergovernmental agreement between Poland and Russia.

 

[11] E.g. PGNIG S.A.: ‘PGNiG S.A. observations on the commitments proposed by Gazprom on the basis of Article 9 of the Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2003 of 16th of December 2002 in Case AT.39816 — Upstream gas supplies in central and eastern Europe’ http://pgnig.pl/aktualnosci/-/news-list/id/oswiadczenie-pgn-1/newsGroupId/10184    (online; press release of 19 May 2017)

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