Belarus Said To Be Blocking Oil Exports

Germany, Poland say oil supplies through Belarus have been halted.

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Germany and Poland said Monday that Russian oil supplies through Belarus had halted and Russia accused its neighbor of disrupting the flow of exports - sharply escalating their bitter energy dispute.

EU energy chief Andris Piebalgs said the situation posed ''no immediate risk'' to energy supplies in the European Union, but that he was seeking an ''urgent and detailed explanation'' of the cuts from authorities in Belarus and Russia.

The head of the Russian state pipeline operator Transneft, Simon Vainshtok, accused Belarus of siphoning off Russian oil since the weekend through the Druzhba, or Friendship, pipeline that was destined for Europe.

''On Jan. 6 the Belarusian side, without warning anyone, unilaterally started illegally siphoning off oil from the Druzhba pipeline designed solely for the transportation of oil to consumers in Western Europe,'' Vainshtok was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

The impact of a short-term stoppage in Poland and Germany is likely to be minimal, as refineries maintain strategic oil stocks.

But the disruption to Russian oil supplies to Europe once again highlights concerns about European energy reliance on Russia a year after its pricing dispute with Ukraine briefly affected EU imports of Russian natural gas.

The Transneft chief said that Belarus, which is furious that Russia is demanding it pay economically damaging oil duties, had diverted 79,000 tons of oil so far.

He called on Minsk to ensure the uninterrupted transit of oil but added that Russia was doing everything it could to boost oil exports to Europe via other routes.

The 4,000-kilometer-long (2,500-mile-long) pipeline has the capacity to ship over 1.2 million barrels a day to eastern and central Europe and generally works at or close to its full capacity.

Belneftekhim, a large state Belarusian industrial and energy holding company, ordered the suspension of transit of oil through Druzhba to Germany, Poland and Ukraine, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies quoted unidentified officials from the pipeline's Belarusian section as saying.

Contacted by The Associated Press, officials from Belneftekhim declined to comment.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry denied blocking the transit of Russian oil, saying that Belarus was not responsible for a decrease of pressure in the pipeline.

But ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said ambiguously that Minsk had been ''obliged to take measures to counter the economic damage to the Republic of Belarus from a shortage of important energy resources.'' He declined to elaborate.

In Warsaw, the Economics Ministry said Monday that Poland was suffering disruptions in oil deliveries from the pipeline that crosses Belarus, the result of the dispute between Moscow and Minsk. Poland relies on the pipeline for around 96 percent of its oil consumption.

''This shows us once again that arguments among various countries of the former Soviet Union, between suppliers and transit countries, mean that these deliveries are unreliable from our perspective,'' Poland's deputy economy minister, Piotr Naimski, told TVN24 television.

The German government confirmed that the pipeline, which supplied two refineries in Germany, had been shut down. Russia is Germany's top supplier of oil, supplying roughly a third of its imports. It was not clear how much of that came through the Druzhba pipeline.

Poland said it about 80 days of reserves and Germany has 130 days, according to the EU.

The suspension of oil deliveries comes just days after Belarus and Russia reached a last-ditch agreement on gas prices that avoided a New Year's cutoff of natural gas for Belarusian consumers that threatened a repeat of last year's energy dispute between Moscow and Kiev.

Belarus grudgingly accepted a doubling of the price it pays for imports of Russian natural gas, on which it depends for industry and home heating.

But the two countries are now locked in a dispute over oil duties, with Russia determined to stop Belarus from re-exporting petroleum products made from processing Russian oil bought cheaply under the previous duty-free regime.

Jason Schenker, an economist with Wachovia Corp., said that if the dispute is not contained soon, it could cause overall oil prices to rise as sellers from other markets could take the opportunity to raise their own prices.

''If this situation is not resolved with relative expediency, the market may interpret it as a repeat of the Ukraine situation from last year, which would have bullish energy price implications,'' Schenker said. ''The magnitude of the reaction of energy markets will be directly dependent on how protracted this situation becomes or appears likely to become.''

Several countries in the European Union, which depends on Russia for 25 percent of its gas consumption, suffered a brief disruption in early 2006 after Moscow suspended gas deliveries to Ukraine because of a pricing dispute. Ukraine and Belarus are the transit route for Russian gas to Europe.

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