When it comes to assessing the importance of natural gas for the European Union’s (EU) energy security, it is essential to shed light both on the latest tendencies and forecasts concerning the use of natural gas, as well as to analyze the current state of key infrastructure development projects that are being widely discussed and are being considered geopolitically significant from an EU point of view. Accordingly, the introductory part of this article points out some key trends depicting the current position and outlooks concerning the use of natural gas in the EU, while the second part seeks to offer an overview of those gas-related projects – primarily gas transportation projects – which are either in the construction phase or are topical in 2020 for specific reasons.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast, the EU’s gas demand is expected to shrink by 2040 to 386 bcm, which is a significant drop from the demand level of 482 bcm in 2019. It should be added that IEA has revised its previous estimation multiple times: in 2018, it forecasted 408 bcm, while in 2017, its estimate suggested 454 bcm for the EU’s gas demand in 2040.
As highlighted in a dataset published by Eurostat in September 2020, the EU’s natural gas production has continued to decline; compared to the preceding year, it fell by 11.0 percent in 2019, which implies a growing reliance on gas imports from outside the EU. In line with this tendency, the EU’s natural gas import dependency reached an all-time high level of 89.5 percent in 2019, a significant increase compared to the 83.8 percent level in 2018.
A diverse range of events have brought about a drop in gas demand in Europe in 2020: the mild weather of the beginning of the year, an increasing share of renewables, as well as the economic consequences of the pandemic, have pushed down gas demand. As a consequence of lower consumption and an increase in solar power generation, renewables could reach a quarterly record high of a 43 percent share in the EU’s power mix in the second quarter of 2020. The long-term tendency behind this remarkable growth of renewables should also be highlighted: renewable energy’s share in EU’s energy consumption has increased from 9.6 percent in 2004 to 18.9 percent in 2018, while the target set for 2030 is 32 percent. In line with the above, the advancement of renewable energy and Europe’s overall decarbonization endeavors is an important question. In particular, the continuance of this trend will affect the use of natural gas. This highly politicized commodity is an essential energy source and a major source of geopolitical controversies.
This article argues that despite the significant increase in the use of renewables, natural gas will remain an energy resource of strategic importance in the EU. Political discussions will continue to revolve around its use, especially given that the rate of import dependency is very high, and might even increase, which strengthens the political justification of gas purchases and gas-related projects. Moreover, despite the specific combination of factors negatively impacting gas demand in 2020, natural gas prices continue to be very low (2-3 USD/MMBtu) making it a commercially attractive energy resource.
From another perspective, it should be highlighted that the aim of reaching climate neutrality by 2050 within the framework of the European Green Deal is a key objective for the EU; however, this does not mean that the importance of natural gas would swiftly decrease. While Europe is seeking to shift away from fossil fuels, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans acknowledged in May 2020 that in some areas of transition the use of natural gas would be necessary to shift from coal to sustainable energy. Simultaneously, in November 2020, Euractiv, referring to draft EU rules, reported that power plants fuelled by natural gas would not be classed as sustainable or transition investments in Europe, which is a sign of a stricter approach in terms of the future use of natural gas.
Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that there are a number of strategically important natural gas-related projects, and recent developments in and around the EU, which merit attention and analysis despite the current shrinking political support for natural gas in the EU. These projects, nonetheless, are inseparable from present European energy security considerations.
Streams and beyond
Decreasing the dependence on gas imports from Russia has long been a key energy security objective of the EU. The quest for diversification continues to remain a central element of the EU narrative on gas supply security. Against this background, the so-called “stream” pipelines – Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, both of which are currently being under construction and being designed to supply Russian gas to Europe – deserve specific attention. These projects have been widely discussed, and considering their politicized nature, criticism about them has been evident in the EU and has also triggered reactions from the United States (US).
In line with this, it should be pointed out that on July 15, 2020, the US Department of State updated the public guidance for Section 232 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which allows for imposing sanctions on persons making certain investments or engaging in certain other activities concerning Russian energy export pipelines, including Nord Stream 2 and the second line of TurkStream. In line with this, the Department of State encourages companies to reconsider their participation in Russian energy export pipeline projects subject to Section 232 and to take action to mitigate their exposure to sanctions. These developments clearly show that Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream are not only perceived as alternative routes to supply Russian gas to Europe, but they are also identified as tools to strengthen Russia’s influence over European energy security, which is strongly opposed by both the US and by many EU member states.
Nord Stream 2 is designed to transport 55 bcm of Russian natural gas per year to Germany, adding to the already existing 55 bcm per year natural gas flow through Nord Stream 1. Nord Stream 2 has been a strongly disputed project even within the EU, as many member states see it as contradictory to the EU’s general purpose of diversification of gas supplies. Construction works on the pipeline linking Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea had been progressing for a while, until US sanctions halted the construction in the end of 2019. At that time, sanctions prevented AllSeas Group SA’s pipeline-laying ship from completing the pipeline’s last sections in Danish waters.
In addition to the above-mentioned update on sanctions, the US government decided in November 2020 to draw up further sanctions to target insurance firms; these new sanctions would prevent ships from obtaining insurance and technical certifications required for continuing their work. This development casts a further shadow on the fate of the disputed pipeline project. Bearing in mind that investors – not only Gazprom, but also European energy companies such as ENGIE, OMV, Shell, Uniper, and Wintershall DEA – have already invested enormous amounts in the project, and that the completion appears imminent in a technical sense, it should be underlined that the political context is becoming increasingly complex and doubtful. In October 2020, the media quoted the German foreign minister Heiko Maas stating that while he assumed the project would be finished, it remained to be seen whether this would occur. At present, only 160 kilometers of the pipeline connection awaits completion. Though the resumption of work was envisaged in early December 2020, its actual continuation remains questionable in light of the US sanctions.
The Balkans route
Gazprom’s TurkStream pipeline and its extension through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary to Austria is another project that has become a frequently debated point of energy security-related discussions in the EU. This pipeline is designed to fulfill a dual purpose: the first string of the pipeline, which has a throughput capacity of 15.75 bcm per year, is designed to transport Russian gas to Turkey in order to supply the Turkish domestic market, while the second string with a similar capacity is aimed at enabling the transportation of further gas volumes from Russia through Turkey to Central Europe via the route mentioned above. The first Russia-Turkey leg of the pipeline has been operational since January 2020, while the extension through the Balkans is under construction. Some infrastructure has already been completed, while construction works on the remaining parts are ongoing.
It should be clarified that the extension of TurkStream through the Balkans is not being constructed by and is not being under the ownership of any single company or consortium in its entirety, but is rather a gas corridor consisting of the pipelines of the national gas transmission systems and interconnections of the countries involved. However, it should be added that Bulgaria and Serbia had to lay hundreds of kilometers of pipelines to fulfill their part of the project. Given its geopolitical implications, the entire TurkStream project and its extension have been criticized because it is a tool to strengthen Russia’s influence over the regional energy security architecture in South-eastern Europe and even beyond. It should be underlined that Russia sees clear economic and geopolitical benefits from the project. Besides potential future gas sales to European countries, Russian companies are also involved in Bulgaria, and Serbia’s pipeline construction works. TurkStream also serves Russia’s strategic goal of bypassing Ukraine as a gas export route.
Improving the connectivity of national gas transmission systems is essential for increasing the flexibility and resilience of Europe’s gas supplies. For this reason, the construction of interconnectors are increasingly important elements on the European gas supply security agenda. It should be highlighted that at present, a number of such projects are on the table. Construction works on the Poland-Lithuania gas interconnection (GIPL) commenced in 2020 and are expected to be finished by the end of 2021. This pipeline will not favor the two countries, but it will serve as a key infrastructural network for connecting Poland with the Baltic and Finnish markets.
Once commissioned, the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector pipeline (IGB) will also serve multiple purposes: on the one hand, it will enhance Bulgaria’s gas connectivity and enable it to diversify its supplies both with piped gas from Azerbaijan or with any LNG it may buy through Greece. On the other hand, Greece will become an important junction of the North-South (IGB), and East-West (Southern Gas Corridor – TAP) energy transit corridors with this interconnector. Based on the contract signed, the pipeline should be ready by April 2021, but according to recent media reports, AVAX, the company undertaking construction works, requested to extend the deadline to June 2021.
In the case of Romania, the construction works on the EU-backed Bulgaria–Romania–Hungary–Austria (BRUA) pipeline have also been progressing: in July 2020, Romanian authorities announced that they hope to finish works on their part of the infrastructure by the end of this year, even though Romania’s offshore gas production in the Black Sea has been facing a deadlock situation, which raises questions over what gas the pipeline could deliver. Beyond that, Romania actively seeks to boost its gas connectivity with non-EU member states, too.
Moldova, a country being fully dependent on Russian gas, may in principle diversify the sources of its gas supplies since a new pipeline has recently been completed between Ungheni and Chisinau. This new pipeline completes the Romanian and Moldovan gas grids connection by linking the Moldovan capital to the already existing Iasi-Ungheni interconnector. However, experts have warned that the 1.5 bcm per year capacity of this pipeline may be underutilized: it, therefore, remains to be seen whether Gazprom’s dominant market position can be contested in Moldova, and it should also be taken into consideration that, at present, Romania faces difficulties with boosting its gas export capability.
Another important competent in this region’s energy supply network is the TAP pipeline, a gas transportation project involving Italy that will be operational soon. TAP is an 878-kilometer-long gas pipeline with an initial throughput capacity of 10 bcm per annum, which runs from the Turkish–Greek border, crosses northern Greece and Albania, and traverses the Adriatic Sea before reaching Italy. The project is the third section of the Southern Gas Corridor, which plays a key role in the EU’s efforts to diversify its natural gas imports, and is constructed for carrying Caspian Sea-origin natural gas from Azerbaijan to European markets. In mid-October 2020, it was reported that the pipeline is substantially ready, and by mid-November, it was projected to be able to transport gas.
Energy rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean
The EU has long been perceiving the Eastern Mediterranean as an increasingly important region from an energy security point of view, not only because EU member states are located in the region, but also for the prospect that the region’s enormous gas wealth might become another source of diversification of gas supplies for further EU member states. Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel have discovered significant offshore gas fields in the past decade, which offers them an opportunity to supply their domestic markets while also exploring the potential of developing export markets.
To this end, the idea of a partly offshore and partly onshore pipeline called EastMed has been developed. This pipeline is designed to transport 10 bcm of natural gas from offshore Cyprus, and Israel’s production sites to Greece and beyond through connecting pipelines routed to European markets. From an EU perspective, EastMed could assist European economies in diversifying their gas supplies to help them shift away from Russian gas.
At the same time, from the perspective of its signatory parties (Cyprus, Greece, Israel), the new pipeline offers collaborative possibilities in terms of energy politics and geopolitical rivalries in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, uncertainties regarding the commercial viability and the project’s funding could prevent EastMed from being implemented; at present, the venture appears to be a geopolitically driven initiative rather than a realistic option for gas exports.
Although the EastMed pipeline has long been a vital segment of European energy security discussions involving the region, it should be highlighted that mounting tensions between Turkey and Greece have dominated the agenda in 2020. The present conflict between the two countries stems from the fact that there are no mutually agreed maritime boundaries between them. In line with this, conflicting understandings of their jurisdiction over maritime territories have resulted in disputes over each other’s respective rights to search for undersea energy resources in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Turkey also has similar overlapping claims with Cyprus. In the summer of 2020, tensions escalated to new levels after Turkey has intensified its search for energy resources and sent a research vessel named Oruç Reis, accompanied by navy ships, to the contested waters between Cyprus and Crete. In response, Greece sent its vessels to block Turkey’s exploration in that area.
These events have not only threatened conflict between the two countries but have also highlighted the area’s potential to become a hotspot in that the quest for energy resources has become associated with shows of force. EU has been cautiously following these events, and has condemned Turkey’s activities many times. Turkey nevertheless remains an important energy security partner for the EU not least in the context of the Southern Gas Corridor – and it is likely that Eastern Mediterranean energy politics will therefore become an increasingly complex factor in EU-Turkey relations.
At the same time, Turkey’s recent gas discovery in the Black Sea, involving an estimated volume of 405 bcm, is a significant result considering that Turkey has been almost fully dependent on gas imports. Once the gas is produced from these fields, it could help transform Turkey’s gas supply structure to the extent that the country will be able to reduce its reliance on foreign gas. In addition, the discovery also signaled the Black Sea’s increasing regional energy security importance.
Geopolitical rivalries over energy in the Eastern Mediterranean are also connected to the ongoing conflict in Libya, within which Turkey, Russia and a number of EU countries have backed opposing factions. Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement in Libya on October 23, 2020, it remains to be seen how the tentative peace process envisaged will help to stabilize the volatile and war-torn country and its heavily damaged hydrocarbon sector. From a European perspective, a stabilized security situation would allow for new investment opportunities, while the country’s ability to contribute to Europe’s energy security offers additional diversification away from Russian gas supplies.
Overall, the ceasefire agreement suggests a changing environment that may enhance the country’s importance within the broader energy security picture. At present, Libya continues to supply natural gas to Italy, though at levels well below the maximum potential capacity of the existing ‘Greenstream’ pipeline connection between the two counties. In 2019, Libya’s total gas supplies to Italy only amounted to 5.4 bcm, even though the pipeline connecting them has a throughput capacity of 11 bcm per annum.
LNG projects on the agenda
Geopolitical calculations do not solely center around pipelines, but they also apply to liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. With Europe having absorbed more than 21 percent of the global LNG output in 2019, compared to a 13 percent share in 2018, the continent has seen the most significant rise in the share of global LNG demand. While Western and Southern European countries have been better equipped with LNG terminals, it is essential to examine the several LNG development projects favoring Central and Southeast Europe that are currently on the table.
First of all, in June 2020, Poland signed a 483 million USD contract to expand its LNG terminal in Świnoujście. The expansion project will help Poland’s LNG receiving capacity to increase from the present annual capacity of 5 bcm to 8.3 bcm per year by 2023. Romania, although struggling with the continuation of its halted offshore Neptun Deep gas production project in the Black Sea, views the construction of its own LNG terminal by 2026 as an important stage in developing the country’s energy infrastructure as well as a logical step in the context of the overall energy security objectives of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI).
With plans to construct its new LNG terminal (more precisely LNG floating storage and regasification unit) near the port of Alexandroupolis, Greece aims both to enhance its role in the regional energy security architecture and lessen its dependence on Turkey from an infrastructure point of view. This new LNG terminal is expected to become operational in 2023. Romania’s Romgaz previously also considered acquiring a stake in the project, though it subsequently decided against participating.
Another very important development is Croatia’s first LNG terminal project at Krk Island, which is expected to become operational for commercial activities on January 1, 2021. As well as being a major step forward for Croatia in improving its energy security position, this project will also enable landlocked countries, such as Hungary, to benefit from LNG. In June 2020, Hungarian Gas Trade Ltd.’s Croatian subsidiary booked up to 1 bcm per year of gas capacity for a period of nearly seven years starting from 2021 to be purchased through Krk Terminal. Besides Hungary, other countries in the region will also be able to use this strategically important facility for accessing LNG cargos from the world market. In July 2020, Cyprus also started the construction of its LNG floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) in Vasilikos Bay. A Chinese-led consortium undertakes the construction works, and the infrastructure is expected to become operational by the end of 2022..
Conclusion and outlook
Without a doubt, it is a long way to go before the EU may achieve climate neutrality and net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 as required by the European Green Deal, given that shifting away from fossil fuels will be a gradual process. Within this process, the role played by natural gas, as the cleanest burning fossil fuel, definitely demands attention. Even if the natural gas’s transitional role is being increasingly questioned, it should be highlighted that a number of new gas pipelines, including politically contentious ones, are underway, while several important LNG projects are also progressing. These projects imply that natural gas will still play an important role in the EU’s energy supplies in the foreseeable future. In this context, the present article has sought to shed light on the key natural gas-related projects currently underway that cover a diverse geographic area by assessing their geopolitical implications and recent developments concerning their progress.
The EU’s interest in the diversification of its gas supplies remain a key narrative of present European energy security discussions. At the same time, it is necessary to highlight that diversification is meant to balance the present gas supply portfolio by introducing new gas volumes from alternative sources into the supplies and applying them to the actual contract terms of gas purchases. The gas market is becoming more flexible: long-term contracts are becoming less attractive, while shorter-term contracts and spot deals are coming to the fore.
LNG projects are significant since they can help EU member states increase the flexibility of their gas purchases, especially at times such as the present when spot LNG is available at low prices. In addition, gas pipelines should also be viewed through varying lenses: the potential reuse of existing natural gas pipelines for transporting hydrogen is increasingly being studied. Germany’s E.ON is testing the technical viability of converting natural gas pipelines into pipelines transporting hydrogen. Hydrogen could play an important role in Europe’s clean energy transition while also giving natural gas pipelines the prospect of the second phase of operation. Thus, the hope for multi-purpose utilization might affect investment decisions in the future when it comes to the construction of new gas pipelines.
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