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Poland: Gas Suppliers Diversify Their Sources

Warsaw, 23 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Poland, following the example of the Czech Republic, is moving to lessen its dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

Warsaw's desire to diversify is not new, in so far as post-communist Polish governments of all complexions have worried for years about relying so heavily on the one source for such an important strategic commodity.

But an RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw reports that the matter appears to have taken on a new urgency since the Czech Republic signed a landmark gas deal last month with Norway. Polish government sources told our correspondent last week that there's no way Poland can continue to rely entirely on Russian gas, thus exposing itself to the risk of being "pressured in times of major crisis", as he put it.

Western suppliers are aware of Poland's intentions, and Dutch and Norwegian companies have already been in contact with the Warsaw government. Our correspondent reports that the Dutch company Gasunie hopes to sign this year an agreement with the state company Polish Oil and Gas Mining (PGNiP), for delivery of 2 billion to 3 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year over the next 15 years. Gasunie's director for foreign deliveries, Sybe Visser, is expected to visit Warsaw soon to set a calendar for negotiations.

The Dutch company is considering three possible pipeline routes and destinations, namely delivery through to the Polish coastal city of Szczecin, or to the eastern German border city of Frankfurt on the Oder, or to Zgorzelec/Goerlitz also on the Polish-German border.

The Dutch know, at the same time, that they will have to compete in Poland with the Norwegian state oil and gas company, Statoil, which hopes to negotiate a similar agreement with Warsaw. In the Norwegian case, North Sea gas imports would come via a pipeline laid on the Baltic Sea floor -- an expensive project in itself, and one which would take time to complete. There is already a liquefied gas terminal in operation in the port of Gdansk.

Poland has in the past received some shipments of natural gas from Algeria and several other Mid Eastern countries, but not on a sufficently large scale to be significant.

An optimistic note was struck by Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz earlier this month, when he told parliament that "promising" gas deposits had been recently discovered inside Poland itself. But, even if these deposits should prove commercially viable, they would take several years to develop and link to the Polish consumer net. So, for the short term Russia will remain the main supplier.

Critics say that, apart from geo-political considerations, Russia cannot be trusted as a steady supplier of gas, particularly in the critical winter months. They point out that at times, Russian gas has had to be supplemented by additional supplies of German Rhurgas.

For their part, the Russians insist they are good commercial partners. Czech officials also questioned Russian reliability after Prague signed the major deal with Norway on March 19. Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy said the higher price of the Norwegian gas would be compensated for by the greater reliability of delivery.

The response to that by the Russian giant Gazprom was quick and angry. A Gazprom statement characterised Dlouhy's remarks as "hostile and not corresponding to reality". Gazprom said it had been a reliable trade partner for 30 years.