Russia Brings Benchmark Plans Back on Radar

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Alexander Astafyev/Sputnik via AP

Calls in Russia for the creation of the country’s own crude oil benchmark are getting stronger as discounts for its Urals export grade hit historic lows and as pricing agencies like Platts suspend their activities in Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Previous attempts to promote Urals as a price benchmark have failed for both political and economic reasons and there are no signs that current attempts would be a success, but work will continue, Russian officials insist.

In the State Duma, or lower house of the Russian parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak was asked about the prospects for creating the country’s own benchmark as discounts for Urals to dated Brent hit $30 per barrel. "Today Urals is a grade that is fairly widely represented on world markets. Nevertheless, it is really tied to the price quotations of various rating agencies. We are currently working with the energy ministry, and with oil companies to ensure the implementation of this [Urals benchmark] project through the creation of an exchange trading mechanism. This work is already under way, it will be continued," Novak said.

Traders Turn Away

The statements are not new. In 2016, Russia made another attempt to promote Urals as a benchmark by launching a deliverable futures contract for the grade to be settled through physical delivery from the Baltic Sea port of Primorsk. The futures contract, launched by the St. Petersburg International Mercantile Exchange (Spimex), failed to get market recognition and received little interest from either Russian oil companies or international commodity traders.

But the calls for the establishment of Russia's own benchmark have intensified as sanctions have forced Western buyers to shun Russian barrels, leading to the huge discounts. In another blow, S&P Global Ratings, namely its benchmark price provider S&P Platts, said it has suspended commercial operations in Russia. Another pricing agency, Argus, told Energy Intelligence that it is "still offering price reporting and journalistic services for oil and gas inside and outside Russia. We have suspended some local assessments where there is insufficient liquidity but we are still covering the key internationally traded markets, including Urals crude.”

Spimex told Energy Intelligence that the “need for an independent indicator of the cost of Russian oil has become even more obvious.” Spimex added that its recently launched new mechanism — an online export auction — is being developed in line with the plan. So far, only state-controlled Zarubezhneft has agreed to sell its barrels using the auctions.

Market Test

Industry insiders say that while the auctions might receive more political backing in today's climate, it has yet to be seen whether Russian oil majors will switch to online auctions. Their usual trading patterns currently appear to be facing huge resilience tests in the marketplace.

Exchange trading might also help Russia promote the ruble as a new payment mechanism. Spimex told Energy Intelligence that “organization of trades, settlements and execution of transactions in rubles is possible,” which might be crucial as Russia is trying to ease its dependence on the US dollar, but initially mainly for gas sales. In 2019, Russia’s biggest oil producer Rosneft switched its tenders — including those for crude oil and oil products — to the electronic platform TEK-Torg set up by Spimex and at the same time started demanding that exports of its oil and petrochemical products are paid for in euros.

Market players still believe that oil trading using national currencies would not happen any time soon as it would require tectonic shifts in the way oil markets have been operating for decades.

However, experts say that Russia’s attempts to switch to national currencies with China, India or neighboring countries could be successful. Russia and China have already tested crude and jet fuel supplies for yuans and rubles, and experts believe the two countries will move further in this direction.

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