By Vladimir Soldatkin and Ivana Sekularac
MOSCOW/AMSTERDAM, April 3 (Reuters) - Dutch natural gas firm Gasunie said on Wednesday it would sign up next week for a project by Gazprom to expand the Russian export monopoly's gas supply network to western Europe.
The two companies should will sign a letter of intent to expand cooperation in infrastructure projects during a visit to the Netherlands next week by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Gasunie spokesman said.
Gazprom is hoping to expand the Nord Stream underwater pipeline that carries Russian gas to Europe, which it runs at the head of a consortium that includes Gasunie.
Because of rules limiting the market share of individual distributors within the European Union, Gazprom has been unable to use the pipeline at maximum levels.
Nord Stream has annual capacity of 55 billion cubic metres (bcm), enough to supply around 10 percent of the EU's annual gas needs, and the pipeline makes landfall in Lubmin, northeast Germany.
Nord Stream's gas can potentially reach other European markets, such as the Netherlands and Britain, through the NEL pipeline connecting Lubmin to Germany's massive Rehden storage site, which is linked to the Dutch North Sea gas infrastructure.
Another way of increasing long-term supply would be to run Nord Stream itself to new countries, which could include Britain.
Citing unnamed sources, Russian daily Kommersant said on Wednesday, that Gazprom and Gasunie would sign a memorandum on a third Nord Stream pipeline during Putin's visit.
The Gasunie spokesman said he could not confirm specific projects under the letter of intent.
Responding to the report, a Gazprom spokesman said talks with the Dutch gas infrastructure company were at an initial stage.
Gazprom has said options under consideration include setting up a gas link to Britain, which has an annual gas demand of around 100 bcm and where supplies have come under strain during a long and harsh winter.
UK gas industry sources in Moscow have said Nord Stream would be unlikely to reach Britain - which Gazprom already supplies via short-term contracts - before 2018.
Nord Stream's other shareholders are Wintershall Holding GmbH, E.ON Ruhrgas AG and GDF Suez. It was not clear if Gazprom had invited them to join the expansion project.
The pipeline was built on the seabed of the Baltic Sea to bypass transit countries, such as Ukraine, where pricing disputes with Russia have in the past led to winter supply disruptions to the European Union.
It has been pumping gas at half of its capacity due to a restrictions including the Third Energy Package of EU legislation aimed at creating a single energy market and preventing firms that dominate supply, such as Gazprom, from also dominating distribution networks.
Russia has been seeking an exemption from those rules, which Putin has described as 'uncivilised'. He is also lobbying to open up fast-expanding Asian markets to Russian gas.
A Nord Stream spokeswoman declined to comment on the consortium's expansion plans.
(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in London.; Editing by John Stonestreet) Keywords: GAZPROM GASUNIE/PIPELINE
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