Russia Table of Contents

Energy plays a central role in the Russian economy because it drives all the other elements of the system--the industrial, agricultural, commercial, and government sectors. In addition, energy, particularly petroleum and natural gas, is the most important export and source of foreign exchange for the Russian economy. Experts forecast that the energy sector will continue to occupy this central position until Russian manufacturing reaches a level competitive with the West.

Exploitation and Consumption

Russia's self-sufficiency in fuels and power generation puts the country in a good position for future economic growth and development. But Russia is also one of the most energy-dependent countries. The International Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD--see Glossary) estimated that in 1993 it took 4.46 tons of oil equivalent (TOE) to produce US$1,000 of Russia's GDP, compared with an average of 0.23 TOE to produce US$1,000 of GDP for the OECD member countries.

Russia's excessive consumption of energy results from the Soviet system, which artificially priced energy far below the level of world market prices and thus subsidized it. Soviet energy-pricing policies disregarded resource utilization in the quest for higher output volumes and discouraged the adoption of conservation measures. Soviet planners also skewed resources toward the defense-related and heavy industries, which consume energy more intensively than other sectors of the economy. Until the 1980s, the national economy managed to survive under such policies because of the Soviet Union's rich endowment of natural resources.

The problems that plagued the Russian energy sector in the last decades of the Soviet Union were exacerbated during the transition period. Since 1991 the output of all types of fuel and energy has declined, partly because of plummeting demand for energy during a time of general economic contraction. But the energy sectors also have suffered from the intrinsic structural defects of the central planning system: poor management of resources, underinvestment, and outdated technology and equipment.

The structure of energy and fuel production began to change dramatically in the 1980s with the exploitation of large natural gas deposits. In the mid-1990s, natural gas accounted for more than half of Russia's energy consumption, a share that is expected to increase in the next decades. Oil accounts for another 20 percent, a proportion that is expected to remain approximately constant. Coal and other solid fuels, water power, and nuclear energy account for smaller shares that experts predict likely will decline after 2000. Despite the waste of fuel in the Russian economy, Russia manages to produce a surplus of energy for export. Exports, particularly of natural gas and oil, have accounted for 30 percent of Russian energy production, and this share is expected to hold steady.

Russia's drive to become a market economy should help to alleviate some of the problems of the energy sector. Russian energy pricing policies have changed. Since January 1992, energy has been gradually deregulated, closing the gap between world market prices and domestic prices and forcing consumers to conserve. Russia is also adopting Western technology and more efficient management techniques that will improve productivity in the sector.


Russia ranks third in the world in oil production, after Saudi Arabia and the United States. Estimates place proven and potential oil reserves at 8 to 11 billion tons. Russia's oil production peaked in 1987, then began a decline that continued through 1995. In the latter year, the yield was 741 million barrels, 13 million barrels less than the previous year. Output for the first quarter of 1996 was 182 million barrels.

Wasteful Soviet oil exploration and extraction techniques depleted wells, which often fell far below their potential capacity. Soviet technology was not capable of exploring and extracting as deeply and efficiently as Western technology. These handicaps have been instrumental in Russia's plummeting oil production during the last two decades. In 1994 the number of oil wells drilled was only one-quarter the number drilled in 1983. About two-thirds of Russia's oil comes from Siberia, mostly from huge fields in the northwest part of the region. The main European oil and gas fields are located in the Volga-Ural region, the North Caucasus, and the far north of the Republic of Komi (see fig. 9).

Russian oil companies are vertically integrated units that control the entire production process from exploration to transmission. The largest company is Lukoil, which, according to some measurements, is the largest oil company in the world. The dominance of a few large companies has made all stages of petroleum exploitation and sale extremely inefficient. National and local government policies have discouraged individual retailers from establishing independent gasoline storage facilities and stations; therefore, retail gasoline likely will continue to be in very short supply (only 8,900 stations were operating in Russia in 1995). Until January 1995, government policy applied quotas to oil exports, and until July 1996 tariffs were applied to oil exports. Both policies, resulting from the gap between controlled domestic prices and world market prices, aimed at ensuring a sufficient supply of oil to meet domestic demand; both were lifted as the gap narrowed.

The search for new oil deposits has been a primary force in Russia's foreign policy toward states to the south. Russia has staked its claim to the Caspian oil reserves that Western companies are exploring in conjunction with Azerbaijani, Turkmenistani, and Kazakstani state companies. The presence of Western interests and the strong role being played by Iran and Turkey, Russia's traditional regional rivals, have complicated this policy, which aims to achieve maximum benefit from Russia's position on the shore of the north Caspian. Also a source of international controversy is Russia's insistence that Caspian oil flow northward through Russian pipelines rather than westward via new lines built through Georgia and Turkey (see Foreign Investment in Oil and Gas, this ch.).

Natural Gas

Russia is also one of the world's largest natural gas producers. Its proven reserves have been estimated at 49 billion cubic meters, or roughly 35 percent of the world's total. Natural gas has also been one of the most successful parts of the Russian economy. In the early 1980s, it replaced oil as the Soviet "growth fuel," offering cheaper extraction and transportation. Although output has dropped in the 1990s, the decline has not been as severe as that for other energy sources or the rest of the economy. Natural gas production peaked in 1991 at 727 million cubic meters, then dropped throughout the early 1990s. But 1995 production, 596 million cubic meters, was an increase from the previous year. After European gas fields in the Volga-Ural region dominated the industry through the 1970s, production shifted to giant fields in Siberia. The Urengoy and Yamburg fields in the West Siberia region are among the most productive; the former is the largest field in the world. Soviet plans called for rapid development of new reserves in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean north of Urengoy, but environmental problems and infrastructure costs slowed development. Hasty construction and poor maintenance have caused chronic breakdowns and accidents in the long pipelines of Russia's natural gas delivery system (see Transportation, this ch.).

The State Natural Gas Company (Gazprom) has a virtual monopoly over Russia's gas production and transmission. A vertically organized enterprise, the company has been reorganized into a joint-stock company, in which 40 percent of the shares remain under state control. Company employees hold another 15 percent, managers of the company hold 10 percent, and the remaining 35 percent were sold at public auction. Gazprom controls a network of regional production associations. Its management, which once was headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, has been accused of corruption and tax evasion.


For more than 150 years, coal was the dominant fuel supporting Russia's industries, and many industrial centers were located near coal deposits. In the 1960s, oil and natural gas overtook coal when plentiful reserves of those fuels became available and the coal shafts of the European Soviet Union (located primarily in what is today Ukraine) were being exhausted. Russian coal reserves are estimated at 200 billion tons, an amount that experts say is more than ample for current usage trends. Siberia and the Far East produce about three-quarters of Russia's coal, with the European contributions coming largely from the Vorkuta field (Pechora Basin) in Komi, the Urals, the eastern Donets Basin in the southwest, and the Moscow Basin. Largely untapped coal fields lie in the Siberian Tunguska and Lena basins. Productive fields in Siberia are located along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, making their exploitation more economical. The largest operational sources in that region are the Kuznetsk, Kansk-Achinsk, and Cheremkhovo fields. Coal is one of the less important sources of energy because its labor-intensive extraction makes production much more costly than other fuels. Rossugol', the Russian coal company, controls coal production through regional associations that are organized as joint-stock companies. Russian coal production has declined markedly over the last decade, and the coal industry has suffered a long series of strikes. Coal miners, among the best paid industrial workers of the Soviet period, have organized strikes that have gained national attention to protest the industry's long delays in paying wages. Experts predict that coal output will continue to dwindle as its relative usefulness in industry and domestic applications is reduced. In 1994 Russia produced 249 million tons of coal, and in 1995 the total rose to 255 million tons. Production for the first quarter of 1996 was 71 million tons.

Nuclear Energy

In 1996 some twenty-nine nuclear reactors were operating at nine sites: Balakovo on the northwest border of Kazakstan, Beloyarsk in the southern Urals, Bilibino in northeastern Siberia (the only station east of the Urals), Kola in the far northwest, Kursk near the Ukrainian border, Novovoronezh on the Don River, St. Petersburg, Smolensk west of Moscow, and Tver' northwest of Moscow. Altogether these facilities accounted for 10 percent of Russia's energy generating capacity in 1994. The plants are operated by regional joint-stock companies in which the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) controls 51 percent of the shares. The nuclear energy sector has undergone financial problems because of government funding reductions. The industry has turned to selling goods related to nuclear energy--equipment and instruments, nuclear fuel, medical isotopes, and fertilizers.

The industry's financial problems, along with the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl' plant in Ukraine in 1986, have raised questions about nuclear safety. Western countries have provided financial assistance in some cases because of their concern about Russia's lax standards of handling nuclear materials and the continued use of outmoded equipment. Russia's piecemeal environmental laws have led to indiscriminate dumping and burial of radioactive wastes, which are creating severe environmental problems. The theft of nuclear materials has become another source of danger emanating from Russia's nuclear energy program (see Environmental Conditions, ch. 3; The Crime Wave of the 1990s, ch. 10).

Nevertheless, experts predict that nuclear energy probably will play an important role in the Russian economy if enough investment is available to expand existing capacity. In 1992 Minatom announced plans to double nuclear energy capacity by 2010, but ensuing financial problems have caused a reduction of that goal, and no new capacity has been added since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) projects that construction of new capacity will not begin until after 2005, even if the investment climate is favorable.

Conventional Power Generation

Much of the conventional fuel produced in Russia is burned to produce electric power. The Unified Electric Power System operates Russia's electric power plants through seventy-two regional power distribution companies. The power system consists of 600 thermal generating systems, more than 100 hydroelectric plants, and Russia's nine nuclear plants. Of the total rated generating capacity of 205 gigawatts, only about 188 gigawatts were available as of 1996. In 1995 Russia's power plants generated a total of 846 million kilowatt-hours, compared with 859 million kilowatt-hours in 1994. Generation for the first quarter of 1996 (normally the peak demand period of the year) was 268 million kilowatt-hours.

In 1993 natural gas provided 42 percent of electricity production; hydroelectric plants, 19 percent; coal, 18 percent; nuclear power, 13 percent; and other sources such as solar and geothermal plants, 8 percent. Natural gas and coal are burned at thermoelectric plants, which produce only electricity, and at cogeneration plants, which produce electricity and heat for urban centers. The largest hydroelectric plants are located on the Volga, Kama, Ob', Yenisey, and Angara rivers, where large reservoirs were built in massive Soviet energy projects. Thermoelectric and hydroelectric plants--located in Siberia because of available fuels and water power--send power to European Russia through a system of high-voltage transmission lines.

Consumption of electric power divides into the following categories: industrial, 61 percent; residential, 11 percent; the services sector, 11 percent; transportation, 9 percent; and agriculture, 8 percent. Regional energy commissions control the price of electricity.

Foreign Investment in Oil and Gas

In the mid-1990s, many analysts consider the oil and gas industries to be the best targets for foreign investment in Russia. The record of foreign investment in that period illustrates both the potentials and the pitfalls of such ventures. Experts have concluded that the Russian oil and gas sector will require large amounts of foreign capital to improve output. According to some estimates, the oil sector will require US$30 to US$50 billion in new investment just to maintain the mid-1990s level of production. To return production to its peak levels will require an estimated US$70 to US$130 billion in new investments, which clearly would have to come from foreign sources. The Russian oil and gas sector also would benefit from infusions of Western technology and expertise. However, according to a 1995 report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, key figures in the oil industry, most of whom were schooled in the isolated Soviet-era approach to commerce, have been indifferent or hostile to Western management methods.

By the end of 1994, the oil and gas sector accounted for about 38 percent of total foreign direct investment in Russia, but the total input was only about US$1.4 billion. Although Western companies are poised to commit large amounts of capital for exploration, as of 1996 most foreign investment had gone to repairing and maintaining current facilities. Some analysts have estimated that foreign investment in the oil and gas sector could reach US$70 billion by the year 2000.

Among several United States oil companies active in Russia, Texaco heads a consortium in the largest project, the development of oil fields in the Timan-Pechora section of the Komi region north of the Arctic Circle. The project, under negotiation since 1989, has an estimated potential of US$45 billion in investment over the next fifty years. Conoco, a subsidiary of the DuPont de Nemours chemical firm, leads a consortium of United States and European firms and a Russian firm in the Polar Lights project to explore Siberian oil fields. Two United States companies, Marathon Oil and McDermott, along with the Japanese companies Mitsui and Mitsubishi and Britain's Royal Dutch Shell, are engaged in one of several projects to explore for oil off Sakhalin Island on the Pacific coast. The last two projects each could bring in as much as US$10 billion.

Nevertheless, Russia's generally poor investment climate and other obstacles such as special taxes have discouraged additional investment in gas and oil. As of mid-1996, a tax of about US$5 per barrel was imposed on oil exports, and a tax of about US$2.60 was levied per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas exported. Foreign and domestic firms were also subject to royalty payments to the Government for the privilege of drilling for oil. Foreign investors have argued that reduced profit margins are a substantial obstacle to the support of some projects. Some major oil investors have received tax exemptions, but delays in rebate payments have created additional deterrents.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress