The US should link eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe to subvert Russia

The Biden administration should pause its hyper-focus on renewable energy and support efforts to prevent Russian energy blackmail against our European allies. The European Union (EU) has declared it will cut reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds. If the U.S. is serious about energy security in Europe, it must help ensure that eastern Mediterranean natural gas makes it to Europe’s shores. 

In late January, President Biden took the opposite route, surprising Greece, Israel and Cyprus — the regional entities in the U.S.-sponsored “3+1” cooperation framework — by withdrawing support for the EastMed Pipeline, an unfunded, multibillion-dollar concept conceived in 2016 that would have brought eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe via an underground pipeline. Biden cited climate change and economic viability concerns, both arguably reasonable positions at the time. However, considering Russia’s war in Ukraine and its downstream effects, Biden must show flexibility and adapt his natural gas policy. 

Gas from the eastern Mediterranean could diversify Europe’s energy portfolio. Israel alone has approximately 2.2 trillion cubic meters of gas awaiting discovery. While it wouldn’t satisfy all of Europe’s needs, it would help to offset Russian gas imports. NATO countries such as Germany, Italy and Turkey could benefit from new suppliers, especially since German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would have increased the country’s reliance on Russian gas. Like Germany, Italy is seeking alternative sources

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met with Israeli leaders last week, has said Turkey is willing to explore pipeline possibilities with Israel that could integrate with the European natural gas pipeline network. Of course, any collaboration with Turkey must be predicated on Erdogan’s meeting certain conditions given his history of antagonism against allies in the eastern Mediterranean and his overly expansive interpretation of maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones.

While most of the debate concerning eastern Mediterranean gas and Europe centers on pipelines, liquefied natural gas (LNG) also presents options to get eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe by ship and land. Currently, a relatively small amount Israeli gas makes its way to Europe via LNG facilities in Egypt, host of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). The U.S. should emphasize support for the EMGF, as it should the 3+1, by enhancing Israel’s LNG capability so it can be a true player in the European market; by supporting Egypt’s LNG potential; and by encouraging further United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatari investment in LNG so that European destinations can be reached and infrastructure is sufficient to meet demand. 

There are political and financial risks to all of this. Many of these states have frosty relations, if relations at all. Record-breaking gas prices and market volatility are the new norm. Plus, none of these proposals would take effect for years, when renewables potentially could render them near-obsolete. Given this, many reasonable analysts have concluded that eastern Mediterranean natural gas will stay regional.

But the emergency we face in Ukraine will have repercussions in global energy markets and international affairs for years to come. U.S. policy can adjust for medium-term needs, supporting access to eastern Mediterranean natural gas, and still seek short-term solutions such as working with Qatar and Azerbaijan — all while keeping an eye on long-term climate change goals such as phasing out fossil fuels. As for feasibility concerns, just last week Chevron CEO Michael Wirth spoke out in favor of the EastMed Pipeline because of the current crisis.

Linking eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe could have a profound psychological effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would undermine Russia as a player in the region’s energy market and militarily. Putin uses Russia’s base in Tartus, Syria, and his cozy relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as leverage to exploit offshore energy opportunities and project power. Russia also provides Greece with a significant amount of its natural gas. 

U.S. investments to integrate eastern Mediterranean and European economies through the sale of natural gas would strengthen Western relations with the littoral states of the eastern Mediterranean and reduce Russia’s ability to find financial partnerships beyond Syria. This was perhaps the thinking of the EU when it recently funded an initiative to connect the electricity grids of Israel, Greece and Cyprus with that of Europe.

The eastern Mediterranean is a flashpoint for great power competition — and potential friction — as NATO and non-NATO major allies are increasing joint military exercises and drills to protect their offshore assets and territorial waters from foreign threats. The U.S. does not project much military power in the eastern Mediterranean, notwithstanding its geopolitical significance and proximity to vital waterways such as the Suez Canal. As the U.S. recedes from the region, it must leave in place a regional security architecture that provides stability, respect for rule-of-law, and deterrence to nefarious actors such as Putin. Sponsoring energy links to Europe would signal to Putin that the U.S. (and indirectly NATO) remains committed to its allies in the eastern Mediterranean, who will certainly enhance military cooperation as the stakes increase.

As stated in the bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019: “Natural gas developments in the Eastern Mediterranean have the potential to provide economic gains and contribute to energy security in the region and Europe, as well as support European efforts to diversify away from natural gas supplied by the Russian Federation.” As the war in Ukraine rages on, natural gas prices in Europe have reached record highs. 

Climate change goals are important, and renewables may be the future, but we must recalibrate our focus in these perilous times. Biden should reverse his rejection of the EastMed Pipeline and have the U.S. take a leadership position in devising a plan to bring much-needed eastern Mediterranean gas to the European marketplace. 

Nicholas Saidel is associate director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously was a fellow at the Penn Law School’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law; an associate at the law firm of Wolf, Block LLP; a legislative aide to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.); and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Godfrey Garner is a professor of counterterrorism at Mississippi College, and adjunct professor at Tulane University and Belhaven University. He served two tours in Vietnam and two tours in Afghanistan with the 20th Special Forces Group. He is co-author of the textbook, “Origins of Terrorism: The Rise of the World’s Most Formidable Terrorist Groups.”

Tags EastMed pipeline Energy Joe Biden Liquefied natural gas Natural gas Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin
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