From gas pipelines to Bitcoin mines: why Kazakhstan upheaval could have global implications

The upheaval in Kazakhstan threatens to have far-reaching economic implications.

The country, which is a member of the OPEC+ cartel of oil producing nations, has tripled its oil output during the last three decades and now produces around 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, around 2% of daily global consumption.

It is the ninth largest exporter of crude oil in the world and is certain to remain an important player in global oil production for many years to come.

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Protesters opposed to president Tokayev have taken to the streets

Kazakhstan has the 12th highest proven crude oil reserves in the world and its Kashagan field, the world’s fifth largest reserve, is expected to be producing 450,000 barrels per day by 2025.

It is also the world’s 12th largest exporter of natural gas.

The country is also the world’s ninth-largest exporter of coal and it boasts the world’s 10th biggest reserves of the commodity.

As important as the country’s production and reserves is where it sits in the world.

Kazakhstan is criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines that deliver not only its own energy exports to China, but those of other producers including Turkmenistan, which sells an estimated 27 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to China.

That represents more than a quarter of China’s annual natural gas consumption and so any attacks on Kazakhstan’s energy infrastructure, particularly its gas pipelines, could have an impact on Chinese manufacturers and, on the back of that, the global economy.

The full moon rises in the background over an oil rig at the Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian sea in western Kazakhstan August 21, 2013
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The Kashagan oil field is the world’s fifth largest reserve

To date, there have been no such attacks, but market participants will be watching closely.

They will also be concerned to see whether workers in the oil industry come out on strike in sympathy with protesters opposed to president Tokayev.

Kazakhstan is also the world’s biggest producer of uranium, the basic fuel used in the production of nuclear energy, accounting for around two-fifths of global production.

Its influence over global uranium supplies is, therefore, comparable with the importance of the OPEC+ cartel to global oil production.

So far this week, the price of uranium has risen by 8% on the back of the unrest in Kazakhstan, which has built a reputation over many years as a reliable supplier of the metal to a number of countries including the United States.

At present, global consumption of uranium exceeds global production, although events in Kazakhstan are not thought likely in the short term to have a knock-on effect in terms of nuclear electricity prices because China – which buys half of Kazakhstan’s uranium exports – has been stockpiling the metal for years.

Livia Paggi, head of political risk at the consultancy GPW, told Sky News: “At the moment it’s difficult to say [how much disruption there will be] but what is a major problem is that there’s probably going to be a change in key officials running the organisation.

“That is going to create all sorts of inertia in the decision-making process and it’s very unclear who is going to be influencing the national state uranium company.

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What’s happened in Kazakhstan?

“If Russia is going in with its troops – Russia also has close ties with the Kazakh uranium sector – it begs the question as to whether Russia will be able to gain the upper hand in this industry.”

Energy is not the only commodity in which Kazakhstan enjoys ample resources.

It is also, after China and South Africa, the world’s third biggest producer of ferroalloys, an alloy of iron and other elements such as silicon, manganese or chromium, an essential element in steel production.

So the global steel industry will be watching events in the country closely.

It is also a big steel producer in its own right, as well as being the world’s tenth largest producer of copper, the metal with a wider range of applications than any other.

Other key commodity markets in which Kazakhstan is a major player include wheat, of which it is a major exporter to neighbouring countries in central Asia.

The country is also the world’s second biggest location for Bitcoin mining, having become the destination for a lot of operators previously based in China, which clamped down on the activity last year.

It is estimated to account for around 18% of the global computing power involved in Bitcoin mining and the sharp falls seen this week in the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been blamed at least in part on Thursday’s nationwide shutdown of the internet.

FILE PHOTO: A worker rakes uranium oxide after the opening ceremony of the Zarechnoye mine in southern Kazakhstan December 7, 2006.
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Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest producer of uranium

The falls, though, are just as likely to be a result of minutes this week suggesting that the US Federal reserve may step up the pace of US interest rate rises.

A number of big western companies have specific exposure to Kazakhstan.

They include the US oil major Chevron, which owns important stakes in Tengiz and Karachaganak, two of Kazakhstan’s most productive oil fields.

Another is Glencore, the 11th largest company in the FTSE 100, which controls Kazzinc, the country’s biggest producer of zinc, lead, copper and some precious metals, chiefly gold.

Other western businesses exposed to the country include AltynGold, a London-listed gold miner with assets in the country and Caspian Sunrise, a London-listed oil and gas group.

The likes of Royal Dutch Shell, BAE Systems and EY are among British businesses with employees in the country.

The UK is Kazakhstan’s fifth-largest trading partner and is the sixth-largest supplier of foreign direct investment into the country.

But Kazakhstan has proved something of a graveyard for UK stock market investors.

Bitcoin five-day price chart
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The Bitcoin price has fallen this week

Speculative businesses with Kazakh interests, such as Max Petroleum, have regularly come a cropper over the years and UK stock market investors are not nearly as exposed to the Kazakh economy as was once the case.

A decade ago, the FTSE 100’s constituents included Kazakhmys, a ferroalloys and copper producer and Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a ferroalloys producer.

Kazakhmys broke itself up and its demerged copper arm, Kaz Minerals, delisted from the London Stock Exchange in May last year.

As for ENRC, which at one point enjoyed a stock market valuation of almost £20bn, it became mired in corruption claims – which it denies.

The company has since been taken private and was subsequently the subject of a long-running investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – though has countersued over the handling of the probe.

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