Why The EU’s Attempts to Diversify Natural Gas Imports May Be Too Little Too Late

Europe today is a significant importer of natural gas and crude oil which remains dependent on the major regional producer, Russia. EU demand for Russian gas imports has increased since 2015, a fact which reflects Europe’s condition of dependency, which in fact originated in the early 2000s when President Vladimir Putin had promoted the opening to Europeans of the Russian energy market. On the EU’s side, however, there are significant energy security risks, that is, insufficient diversification of supply routes, not supplier risk. 53% of Russian gas delivered to Europe is transported via pipelines through Ukraine (down from 80% a few years ago). Any disruption along this route is the biggest threat to supply. On the Russian side, there is an ongoing effort to secure Western investment, technological capability, and technical expertise so Gazprom can replace and modernize their natural gas infrastructure. Only Germany seems to enjoy exclusive and close relationships with the Russian energy industry. The new EU energy policy, by contrast, is to diversify the geography of oil and gas imports. At the same time, the new imperative of the United States is to bring shale oil and gas to the world market starting in 2018, which is an enormous competitive challenge for Russia.

In Italy, this issue is gaining momentum in the media and public opinion due to the ongoing works on the TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline), which will connect Southern Italy (in particular, the beautiful and sun-kissed Salento) to Albania and ultimately Azerbaijan, from where natural gas will be sourced. Environmentalists’ protests over the pipeline construction have been going on for years and the new Italian government, elected in June 2018, at first dubbed the project “pointless,”  changing its mind after Prime Minister Conte’s meeting with President Trump on July 30, when the latter urged Italy to proceed with it. At the moment, TAP seems to be firmly on Italy’s agenda, but the country’s political uncertainty does not help. A lot will eventually depend on the overall state of West-Russia relations.

The West-Russia confrontation on energy has moved from the “South Stream” vs. “Nabucco” pipelines to the new “Turkish Stream” vs. “Southern Gas Corridor.” In the 2000s, the European Union and the United States backed the Nabucco pipeline, which would have originated in Azerbaijan, transiting through Turkey. Although this proposal seemed to have a better chance of success, the U.S. and the EU argued that while they were no longer able to reduce Central Asia’s dependency on Russia, they could still help Europe, which was relying too much on Russian natural gas. Later, the “South Stream” project emerged as a rival, a $39 billion and 1,500-mile pipeline that would carry Russian gas to the heart of Europe The effort gained particular momentum after 2006, in light of Russia’s natural gas transit disputes with Ukraine.

 

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