America’s strategic mistake in the Mediterranean
As tensions between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine highlight Europe’s strategic dependence on Russian gas, a critical natural gas pipeline stretching across the Mediterranean finds itself at the center of competing geopolitical forces. The EastMed Pipeline was supposed to diversify and increase European gas supplies, thereby enhancing the continent’s energy security.
The pipeline, over 1,100 miles long and costing over $7 billion, was given “Special Project” status by the EU and hailed as a boon to EU energy independence by the United States. But in early 2022 the Biden administration did an about-face, informing allies that it no longer supported the strategic pipeline on environmental grounds.
The project was designed to bring some 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) of dry natural gas from the offshore fields of Israel and Cyprus, across Greece, to Italy and Bulgaria — much to the chagrin of Turkey and Russia, both excluded from the project. As Europe suffers from historically high gas prices, and the U.S. scrambles to sanction Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, EastMed is about to be killed.
This is a disastrous decision that imperils European security and opens the door for further Russian energy hegemony in European gas markets. It should be reversed.
The EastMed was announced in 2016, and several agreements on it have been signed between the countries involved. The U.S. was present at the 3+1 meetings in 2019 that outlined plans to complete the €6 billion ($6.8 B) line by 2025. However, with Turkey playing interference, and the global economy in free fall during the first COVID outbreak, sufficient financing was never secured.
US backs out
On January 11, the U.S. State Department withdrew its historic diplomatic support for the pipeline, declaring that the massive gas project was antithetical to President Joe Biden’s climate goals.
State Department senior advisor for energy security Amos Hochstein said — before he was appointed — that he would be “extremely uncomfortable with the U.S. supporting this project … why would we build a fossil fuel pipeline between the EastMed and Europe when our entire policy is to support new technology … and new investments in going green and in going clean?”
Hochstein said, “By the time this pipeline is built we will have spent billions of taxpayer money on something that is not only obsolete but against our collective interest between the U.S. and Europe.”
U.S. officials now believe priority should be given to interconnecting the electricity grids of countries in the region instead.
Despite these claims, the United States has missed the mark on potential security concerns that cutting off the pipeline may present.
Win for Russia
Amidst the worst energy crisis in Europe since the 1970s Arab oil embargo, America’s reversal on EastMed only bolsters Russia’s energy domination.
Russia provides about one-third of the gas and crude oil imported by the European Union, and more so for Germany. Last year, Russia pumped about 128 bcm of gas to Europe, the lion’s share of which traveled through Ukraine (upwards of 40 percent).
Europe’s hasty attempts to transition from hydrocarbons to renewables, which the Biden administration so enthusiastically supports, have left it more vulnerable than ever to Russian energy blackmail. Not only are countries like Germany burning more coal to fill the gap left by inadequate storage capacity for wind and solar energy, but critical domestic supplies of natural gas are dwindling. Reserves are already half-empty.
The planned completion of Nord Stream 2 would provide major EU economies such as Germany and France with plentiful and affordable natural gas. But these supplies would hardly be reliable — and therein lies the rub: Europe’s increased dependence on Russian pipelines give the Kremlin an unprecedented level of foreign policy leverage. Germany’s hesitance to join other NATO members in sanctioning Russia over a possible Ukraine invasion is Exhibit One for all to see. Today Russia is pounding on the door of Ukraine.
The Kremlin deliberately and strategically has built gas transit routes for the past several years that bypass Ukraine: If Ukraine is no longer needed as a natural gas transit hub, Russia can invade without disrupting westward energy sales (and thus its energy revenues).
Qatar to the rescue?
With the international community preparing for a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the United States is opening talks with other gas exporters to prevent an all-out energy crisis. Natural gas giant Qatar could be that solution if it redirects a higher percentage of its liquified natural gas (LNG) to the EU. Biden has invited the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the White House to conduct the gas talks.
The EastMed holdup has alienated Israel, which initially supported Turkish involvement in the project to ease Greek concerns over potential regional conflict. However, Ankara made clear that competing claims over gas reserves in Cyprus’ territorial waters make the project dead on arrival, stating that any pipeline projects routed through the Eastern Mediterranean were bound to fail.
Turkey occupied Northern Cyprus in 1974, and supports the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, while not recognizing the government of Cyprus. It sent war ships to support energy exploration in Cyprus’ territorial waters. The U.S. abandoning of EastMed benefits Turkish regional security policy, with Erdogan claiming that the project cannot go ahead without Turkey’s participation.
The way forward
As the United States looks for ways to support European energy independence in this unfolding crisis, the volte-face on EastMed is a policy failure.
First, the EU has effectively abandoned the German Energiewende (energy transformation) approach, declaring natural gas (and nuclear energy) “green.” It recognized that full transition to renewables currently is impossible. Second, pulling the rug from under EastMed does not align with the United States’ goal of diversifying Europe away from Russian gas. It also serves as a jab against allies Greece and Israel, as Turkey stands to benefit from renegotiations of pipeline operations.
The United States needs to do more than open talks with Qatar — it should recognize that both piped gas and LNG are needed to safeguard Europe from the Gazprom habit. The Biden administration should reinstate its support for the EastMed Pipeline — and get Israel, Turkey and Greece to work together on its implementation.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center. He is the author of “Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis.”
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