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Back to school


Edinburgh, UK

After three years of incredible personal, professional, and business growth, I take my leave from The Conway Bulletin to undertake a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow.

When I started at the Bulletin as a Kazakhstan correspondent, the newspaper had only 3 pages. Back then, everyone was excited about the start of the Kashagan offshore oilfield, which would have soon disappointed hopefuls when its pipes broke. Interestingly, Kashagan just re-started a few days ago. But now the Bulletin counts hundreds of subscribers, not just dozens, runs 12 pages packed with news every week and has a fully-working archive with over 7,000 news items from the past six years.

Now, after writing well over 2,500 news stories and around 200 news wires, covering  elections around Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and doing an immense amount of daily research, it’s time for me to move on to my next challenge, back into academia.

At Glasgow, I’ll fold back into my research of Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with a particular eye this time to its social impact. This means that I will travel more to Central Asia, attend more academic conferences, and write more for a diverse range of outlets.

For a brief period, I will continue to work part-time at the Bulletin, hoping that my replacement can be found soon. And I will stay on in Edinburgh until there’s a good reason to move.

After almost two years, the blog is back. Or is it?

Kazakhstan at the Center of Eurasian Energy (an unconventional article)

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Several things have changed since I wrote this article in October 2013. It was never published and since it’s not topical anymore and it’s not deep enough to pitch it anywhere, I want to embark in an experiment: I’m going to comment it with a seven-month delay to check what has changed in the meantime. Comments are in bold. The original piece was written on October 9, 2013.

October has been a busy month for the energy sector of Kazakhstan. After a very hectic summer, with the launch of Kashagan oil production in September, Almaty and Astana hosted two very important international meetings.

In Almaty, the 21st Kazakhstan International Oil & Gas Exhibition (KIOGE) opened its doors on October 1st and saw the presence of local and international companies involved in the Kazakh energy sector, in particular in oil and gas from the upstream to the downstream. At the KIOGE Conference, on October 2nd, several influential figures took the floor and talked about the main successes and prospective challenges in the Kazakh extractive sector. Of particular interest, due to its recent developments, was the start of production in Kashagan, which had been the object of several years of investments and drillings in severe climatic conditions. At the press conference, the Deputy CEO of Geology and Projects at the national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz (KMG), Kurmangazy Iskaziyev dismissed the rumors that regarded the stoppage of production soon after its start. “In such difficult conditions” he said, “it is business-as-usual to encounter such halts to production, it was fully accounted for by the consortium”. Now we know that the stoppage was not a short-term hiccup, but a structural problem which will delay production until the end of 2015, at the very least. Also, why do they always choose to start production with the winter season approaching?

When talking about the export options for Kashagan oil, the main option for the consortium is still the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which goes through Russia, to the port of Novorossiisk, where oil is shipped to the world markets. The input of new oil into the market goes hand in hand with the expansion of the CPC, which plans to more than double its throughput capacity in the next few years. Without additional input from a source other than TengizChevrOil, a 56/60 mta pipeline will be hard to fill. And if Kashagan is crucial to the “Future Growth Project”, then what does the consortium hope in terms of further oil supply? 

Otherwise, short-length shipping from Atyrau to the hub in Samara, or barge shipping from Aktau to Baku are both viable options, but less palatable economically. According to Reuters’ head of Commodities in the CIS, Aleksander Yershov, the government’s preference for CPC is “logical”. Quietly present was also the Chinese option, because its viability depends on the expansion of the pipeline network that connect Western Kazakhstan to Western China (an option that is not yet being served at the pipelines table). A few key questions for Kazakh energy were brought to the fore: the maturity of the fields that are being exploited in the country, the need for an improvement of the energy transportation infrastructure, and the beginning of the era of hard oil, also called “inaccessible oil”. This last point was echoed at the VIII KazEnergy Eurasian Forum that took place last week in Astana (8-9 October). There, several experts and famous politicians reminded the energy industry that the “end of easy oil” would entail an  increased of the role of the state in the extractive industries. Only by doing so, countries can ensure that the energy mix in domestic consumption and the portfolio for export can remain balanced. Wim Thomas, Chief Energy Advisor at Shell, depicted two scenarios that varied in the state intervention in the energy sector. Only a scenario that gives more power to the market would be successful according to the head of one among the top companies in Kazakhstan. At KazEnergy, the speakers mentioned repeatedly the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States as a game changer, because of its indirect effects on several market nodes down the chain of energy trade. These effects have yet to be seen in Europe, as gas is not yet traded without the link to the oil indexes, which is telling of how slow developments in this sectors can be when the resource is either still in the ground or not-so-easy to transport.

The official line of the Kazakh government is that day-to-day pragmatism has to be kept in place, while new development policies are drafted. Ministers and deputies mentioned the Green Economy legislation as the first step and unveiled on October 8th the Project ‘Evraziya’, which can become a platform for transnational companies and littoral governments in the Pri-Caspian region. The main partners will be Russia and Kazakhstan. Their public officials have promised to take the necessary steps to declassify their geological data in order to allow for an informed period of monitoring through the creation of an international consortium, under the auspices of the Ministries of Energy in Moscow and Astana. KazEnergy has been the broker of this project since the meeting last year, and the signature of an agreement by the end of the year would signify the success of the Forum in its mediation efforts. Nobody has talked about it since then, hopefully they’re working on it behind closed doors, but it would be interesting to check back at the next KazEnergy Forum. 

According to François Fillon and José María Aznar, both former Prime Ministers in France and Spain respectively, the role of the government in these matters should be one of balancing domestic needs with regional and global aspirations, but also one of attracting and encouraging foreign investment. This aim can only be achieved by guaranteeing a stable and reliable legislative framework, something that was repeatedly stressed also at KIOGE by several representatives of foreign companies that work in Kazakhstan. In particular, the new tender system, the question of health and safety of the workers, and the general issue of transparency were addressed. (Although some issues created conflicts among workers in the past months.) However, this last point about transparency was addressed by the V National Conference on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Kazakhstan, held at the end of KazEnergy on October 9th. In this occasion, the working plan for a new study of the penetration of transparency standards in Kazakhstan was laid out, which set in stone the collaboration between Astana and the Oslo-based organization. Competing interests were brought together during these two forums, with the two different understanding of energy security being spelled out by both importers and exporters. The participation of the representatives of the European Union and those of the Persian Gulf countries is telling of the efforts that Kazakhstan puts in place for the solution of one of the most complex equations of the 21st century. The placement of the Central Asian country at the center of the picture, increases the importance of Kazakhstan in bridging the interests of consumers and suppliers from Europe to Asia. No words were spent on India, which had just been sidelined after their offer for a stake in Kashagan was matched by KMG in the summer of 2013, and was later sold to CNPC by the Kazakh state company. Now, the recent developments of the new tenders in Kazakhstan, especially the successful exploration in the Abai offshore bloc, could revive the partnership.

Final note: in the past months, an increasingly depressing picture has been painted on the fate of Kashagan. This is especially true since the problem that it faced at the end of September 2013 is likely to strengthen the Consortium’s headache. Ramping costs, environmental fines, and production delays can only hurt the balance sheet of the operators of the field. Plus, the inability to enjoy the time of high oil prices can also have a negative effect, since the paradigmatic shift in Europe is ensuing and could bring down oil prices. If the “easy oil” era is expiring, the “inaccessible oil” epoch has still to come for Kazakhstan  

(Non) va bene

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

Tra mille nuove idee, un freschissimo e IMPORTANTISSIMO progetto (, ogni tanto è bene cercare su Google il proprio nome. Anche se si fa quasi a tempo perso. La “presenza online” è importante per chi si occupa di giornalismo e ricerca accademica, ma anche per chi volesse capire quanto della sua vita sia stato condiviso sulla grande rete.

E fu così che trovai un paio di citazioni dei miei lavori. Un articolo di un collega dell’Università tedesca di Siegen, Michael Sander, che ha pubblicato un ottimo articolo sulla pregevolissima rivista Energy Policy, un faro nella ricerca accademica per quanto riguarda l’energia. L’articolo citato è quello scritto a quattro mani con Elvira Oliva, che tra l’altro è anche una colonna portante del progetto Energy Brains di cui sopra.

Un’altra citazione è nella recensione della letteratura della tesi di Master di un giovane ricercatore norvegese. La citazione riguarda il mio libro sul ruolo dell’energia nella politica estera russa nei confronti del Kazakistan. Leggere come gli altri interpretano la tua analisi fa molto piacere (soprattutto quando il messaggio che hai provato a inviare è arrivato a destinazione). [Anche se l’ammontare di bibliografia e analisi copiata e incollata mi fa dubitare del sistema accademico norvegese]

Fin qui tutto (molto) bene. Poi incappi in infocusnewsanalysis (un’accozzaglia di parole-chiave tutte nel titolo!), che in un’analisi sulla situazione in Ucraina del dicembre scorso riporta, quasi per intero un mio articolo scritto per AGIenergia. Senza inserire né il nome della fonte, né un link di riferimento. Non va bene. Ringrazio per le belle parole, ma così muoiono sia il giornalismo, sia l’etica di chi scrive.

Lavorare con un settimanale britannico (The Conway Bulletin) mi sta insegnando che lavorare gratis non è un vanto, una buona azione che serve a farsi conoscere. È un danno prima di tutto ai colleghi che di giornalismo ci vivono (a fatica) e innesca meccanismi tali per cui si può copiare e incollare, senza sentire il bisogno di citare in maniera appropriata.

Bottom line: andatevi a cercare su Google, ci saranno probabilmente belle sorprese, ma quasi sicuramente qualcosa che non vorreste vedere.

On Gazprom, the Kremlin and Foreign Policy Decision-Making in Russia

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

Today an article that I co-wrote with a colleague and friend of mine was published in the 25th volume of Irish Slavonic Studies (full issue in .pdf), the academic journal of the Irish Association for Russian, Central and East European Studies. In May 2012 I flew to Cork, Ireland to give a presentation of the preliminary findings of the paper Ludovico Grandi and I had written over the previous Christmas and Easter vacation (because that’s how researchers employ their free time). I am grateful to the wonderful and eclectic Irish Association, which gave us the possibility, even as young researchers, to publish on their journal, but most of all to participate in their annual conferences, that enriched my knowledge, extended my network, and helped me amend some fallacies from my work. For the 2012 edition in Cork I wrote a blog post and a report, I couldn’t do the same for this year’s conference in Dublin, which was equally outstanding.

It’s a rather descriptive piece, that lacks a deeper analysis of the meanders of Russian foreign policy and the influence that National Corporations have upon the decision-making processes, but a) the lack of space and time; and b) our overarching purpose prevented us from a more profound research. In reality, I had captured some of the technicalities of the influence of energy issues in Russian foreign policy already in 2011 with my thesis/book (which will soon be available free of charge). Moreover, our effort mainly aimed to poke academic research in the troubled grounds of complexity.

It has been far too easy for academics, as well as journalists and experts, to sweep everything under the carpet and apply a blanket judgement on “Russia” as an “energy superpower”. This raw point of departure fails to take into account the variety of actors and interests involved in the decision-making process that shapes foreign policy. With this paper we point out the dynamics between the Kremlin and the National Champions of Gazprom and Rosneft’.

Our main argument is that there are periods of concentration of interests, i.e. the interest of the two state-owned energy companies and that of their owner coincide, when Russian foreign policy is spelled with one voice, also using the much advertised “energy weapon”. However, and counter to a substantial branch of the literature, we observed that in periods of competing interests, decision-making in Russian foreign policy is contested by the various actors, as in the case with TNK-BP until the summer of 2012. Timing is important when you bring up an example: Russian actors have acted in concert since the confusion that led up to the heated summer of 2012 and now display a more cohesive stance towards the case that we analyzed. This fact, however, does not weaken much our argument, since we wished to depict precisely the periods of “concentration” and “competition” that influence the decision-making in Russian foreign policy.

So here we are. Clicking on the picture below, you can read the .pdf version of the article. And yes, the picture below shows you that the article before ours was written by Peter J. S. Duncan, one of the guiding stars in our research path.