To shun Putin’s gas, the EU opts for other fossil fuel projects

Two weeks into the Russian invasion, Washington reignited a heated debate that Americans had previously put on ice: should the the Eastmed pipeline be built in the Mediteranean Sea.

Yes, hinted the head of foreign affairs at the US Department of Energy, in an policy u-turn on 14 March. Quizzed on the project at the Delphi Economic Forum, an event celebrating Greek-American friendship, Andrew Light said: “After the latest developments, we will take a fresh look at everything. It is not only about the green transition, but also the transition away from Russia.”

Yet, the US State department had killed the idea in January 2022, stating “we are shifting our focus to electricity interconnectors that can support both gas and renewable energy sources.”

But the war seems to have changed president Biden’s position towards Eastmed, an offshore pipeline that would link Europe to Israel’s gas through Greece and Cyprus. 

Washington’s volte-face will certainly please its own gas industry: both American Chevron and Exxon are involved in the venture.

If it saw the light of day, Eastmed would be the longest subsea pipeline ever built, stretching 1,900 km. The bill too would be colossal:  €5.2 billion, for a mere capacity of 11 billion m³ of gas per year. A pittance, compared to the 155 bn the EU imported from Russia in 2021. What’s more, Global Witness, an NGO, claims that the pipeline could emit more greenhouse gasses than Europe’s worst polluter: the Bełchatów coal-fired power plant in Poland. 

There is a growing opinion in the EU Parliament that fossil fuels cannot be a sustainable investment. On Wednesday, march 30th, two groups of lawmakers, the S&D and the Greens, announced they would reject plans to include gas and nuclear in the European taxonomy, a classification of climate-friendly investments.

The EU predicts a 71% drop in gas consumption by 2050 and an increase in renewables. Regardless, the Commission is still backing the project, included on its list of priority infrastructures, the so-called PCI list.

The industry sector is divided on the issue. Charles Ellinas, the former head of the Cyprus Hydrocarbons Company, said in 2021: “EastMed could only cover a small fraction of [Europe’s] gas imports, and will not contribute to a diversification of sources.” 

But a few days ago, Nicola Monti, the CEO of Edison, an Italian electricity firm, told Agenzia Nova that it is “is the only real diversification project using gas sources that have already been discovered, tried and tested and are closer to the European market.” He added that the whole thing could be completed “in four years”, a record given that work on the Israeli-Cypriot end has not even begun. 

Frida Kieninger of Food & Water Europe, an NGO, reckons it would rather take five to seven years. 

“Nothing speaks in favour of accelerating Eastmed, she told IE. “It’s an extremely bad idea that would devour billions of euros.”

The eastern Mediterranean gas saga is not over. Biden could still push for the pipeline to be diverted via Turkey, a US ally and a Nato member that is playing a mediation role in the Ukrainian war. At the beginning of the year, Turkish president Erdogan made it clear that Eastmed “cannot work without Turkey.”

Just a couple of days ago, Istanbul’s Daily Sabah reported fresh negotiations between the Israeli and Turkish authorities. And in January, several European media had written about a possible alternative route for Eastmed, passing through Turkey.

Besides, Eastmed isn’t the only fossil fuel project back in the spotlight because of the conflict. The MidCat pipeline between Spain and France, which was shelved in 2019 after €1.3 billion of investments, resurfaced in Spanish leaders’ minds. 

“MidCat would at best satisfy 2-5% of all European demand,” said Kieninger. “It would take years to finish while we could invest in renewables to get us out of our dependency on gas.” 

Still, Madrid is likely to be emboldened by a recent announcement that Washington will export more liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe, potentially placing the port of Barcelona and MidCat on a lucrative route. 

On Friday 25 March, the US and the EU agreed that a further 15 bn m³ would cross the Atlantic in 2022, with a goal of an extra 50 bn in the coming years. In 2021, the EU imported 22 bn m³ of American LNG, a fraction of Russia’s 155 bn, which provided 40% of the bloc’s gas consumption.

“We want, as Europeans, to diversify away from Russia, towards suppliers that we trust, that are friends, and that are reliable,” said the Commission’s president Ursula Von der Leyen when revealing the deal alongside Joe Biden.  

However, what is good for transatlantic relations may be harmful to consumers’ bills. The US doesn’t have the capacity to extract more gas this year, which will mean diverting the stock promised from existing buyers, according to Craig Erlam, senior markets analyst at Oanda, a London broker. 

“For now, it will likely mean higher costs for Europe which is forced to compete with Asia and others for US LNG,” Erlam explained to IE. He added that the Union may struggle with its current infrastructures to receive and transform gas ferried by ship. 

Raphael Hanoteaux of E3G, a climate think tank, agrees. “LNG can’t possibly become the backbone of the security of energy supply for the EU,” he told IE. “Any diversification strategy based on LNG would drastically hamper the competitiveness of industries and have a strong impact on households.”

It would also be catastrophic for biodiversity, have complained environmental activists. American LNG is extracted through hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”, a controversial practice banned in many European countries.

Kelly Sheehan of the Sierra Club, a Californian environmental NGO, fears that the expansion of shale gas in the US would “spell disaster for our climate and already overburdened Gulf coast communities.” She insists that cutting down on fossil fuels “is the only way to stop being vulnerable to the whims of greedy industries and geopolitics.”

The EU pledged to end imports of Russian fossil fuels by 2027. At a press conference on Monday, a spokesperson for the Commission said that the agreement with the Biden administration was also about clean sources and had “the green thread running all the way through it.”To reach energy sovereignty within five years, the German think-tank Agora proposed a roadmap. In a recent report, it suggests that 80% of Russian gas can be avoided if the bloc improves its energy efficiency and propels renewable power.

The price of independence: €113 billion each year. “Investments are needed that will create significantly more economic value and jobs than sticking to the current fossil-based model,” Mattias Buck, the report’s author, told IE. Based on his assessment, there is also money to save, up to €320 billion in five years on gas reduction alone.