Japan runs obstacle course in search of energy security

Times Staff Writer

One by one, the foreign mega-projects that were supposed to guarantee Japan’s long-term energy supplies are hitting the skids.

Japan’s energy future is being squeezed in Iran, where the diplomatic struggle to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has pushed Tokyo out of a coveted oil deal.

And it is being jeopardized on Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where projects that were supposed to herald a new generation of natural gas supplies are snagged amid Moscow’s tough bargaining for a bigger stake in the profits.


Add predicted cuts in liquid natural gas imports from Indonesia -- whose contracts are up for renewal -- and this oil- and gas-guzzling country finds itself in a terrific struggle to expand its overseas energy sources.

“We know we rely on oil too much,” said Hideki Tanaka of the Petroleum Assn. of Japan, which represents oil refining and marketing companies. “That’s why in order to secure a constant supply, we make diplomatic efforts to keep good relationships with oil-producing countries.”

But the vagaries of oil diplomacy are proving problematic for Tokyo, especially in a world on heightened alert against the spread of nuclear weapons. Anxious nuclear diplomacy around Iran and North Korea is hindering Japan’s ambitious plan to diversify its energy sources.

The strategy took a big hit last month, when Japan’s deal with Iran to lead development of the rich Azedegan oil field was done in by the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate Tehran, which Washington accuses of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Japan’s state-controlled Inpex Holdings Inc. owned 75% of the Azedegan project but had consistently pushed back the launch because of the tense political environment. Increasingly impatient and with competitors such as China eager to pick up any slack, Tehran and Inpex finally agreed to slash the Japanese company’s stake to just 10%.

Japan is the world’s second-largest energy consumer, though its use is less than a quarter of that of the U.S. The country imports nearly all its oil and gas, with oil meeting about half of total energy demand. More than half of its imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


Japan’s energy vulnerability also came into play last month in reaction to North Korea’s underground nuclear arms test. In the wake of that watershed event, senior Japanese politicians have raised the specter of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia with murmurs that their nation should reconsider its policy against possessing, stationing or developing atomic weapons.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to quash that debate, in part, advisors say, because of Tokyo’s sensitive relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency, which promotes and supervises civilian nuclear power while monitoring possible weapons proliferation, allows Japan to reprocess fuel from its civilian nuclear reactors under strict supervision, guarding against the diversion of spent fuel to a bomb-making program.

Abe worries that speculation about a Japanese bomb, no matter how idle, might raise hackles at the atomic energy agency.

The agency has pledged greater vigilance against proliferation. In mid-October, the agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, warned about unnamed countries “hedging their bets to have [nuclear weapons’ technology] know-how in case they need to develop their own deterrence.”

Abe’s advisors say Japan can’t put its civilian nuclear program in jeopardy. Japan is the world’s third-largest nuclear energy producer, after the United States and France, and wants to increase the percentage of domestically generated power it gets from those plants from one-third to 40%.

“Nuclear is one of the most promising prospects for Japan’s energy needs,” said Tsutomu Toichi, managing director of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. “Now is not a good time for influential politicians to be talking about security options, even if it is a very minority view.”


Alarmed by high oil prices and its dependence on fossil fuels, Japan released a national energy strategy in May that called for, among other things, strengthening diplomacy to help secure foreign supplies.

It also encouraged Japanese companies to invest more aggressively in the exploration and development of overseas oil and gas. Japanese companies currently have ownership stakes in projects that produce about 15% of the imported crude. Tokyo wants to see it jump to 40% by 2030.

That’s the model that trading companies such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui & Co. were following when they took on 45% of Russia’s Sakhalin 2 project, which was expected to begin shipping natural gas to nearby Japan by 2010.

But in September, Moscow balked, announcing plans to re-structure the deal with its foreign partners and threatening criminal charges against the companies for alleged environmental infractions.

Moscow’s irritation stems from massive cost overruns by lead developer Royal Dutch Shell. That could delay the flow of revenue to Russian coffers, which won’t begin until foreign investors recover their costs.

Japanese officials say they expect a new revenue-sharing deal to be struck but remain uneasy about the fate of the project.


The frustration only increased last month, when Exxon Mobil Corp., which has rights to market natural gas from Sakhalin 1, said it had reached a preliminary agreement to sell the gas from that other mega-project to China instead of Japan.

Casting for alternative sources led Tokyo to give $20 million to Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani on his recent visit to Tokyo, aimed at shoring up production in Iraq’s battered southern fields. A joint statement declared that “Iraq is an irreplaceable partner for Japan in terms of stable energy supply.”

Analysts are divided on the seriousness of the risks these recent setbacks pose to Japan’s long-term energy security.

Optimists point out that Japan is an aging country with a shrinking population and advanced conservation technologies, all of which should combine to diminish long-term demand. They also note that Japan, unlike most countries, is increasing its investment in alternative energy, contending that the fossil fuel setbacks are only temporary.

“It’s a seller’s market, with producers taking a very aggressive attitude,” said Toichi, referring to the problems at Sakhalin 2. “So you see Russia seeking to revise terms. But if both sides do not agree, then both sides will be losers. So I’m not pessimistic in the long term.”

But those who are point to Japan’s lingering inability to find alternatives to its dependency on Middle East oil.


“Japanese bureaucrats don’t think of risk,” said Yoshinori Ishii, author of “The Last Battle for Oil,” a well-received book that warns that the world is running out of the stuff.

“Oil reserves have passed their peak, but many in Japan still say there is enough. It is a lie.”


Naoko Nishiwaki contributed to this report.