Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is Nabucco a Pipeline or a Pipe Dream?

Nabucco is even further from completion today than it was a year ago. There is no commitment for feedstock, and no real financing. Other competitors for the same initial gas, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Interconnector Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI), have a better chance of success because they are less ambitious, and less costly. The only possible way for Nabucco to survive appears to be in partnership with one of these smaller pipelines, or with its Russian-backed rival, South Stream.

In May, the pipeline announced it was pushing back the start of construction by three years to 2013, and the start of operations would be delayed until 2017. According to Nabucco managing director, the delay is due to the uncertainty surrounding the supply of raw materials, reports Russia Profile. Reinhard Mitschek said in a conference call that construction would start "as soon as there are firm indications that gas supply commitments are in place."

There are a number of indicators that Nabucco remains a serious contender. Reuters reports that the CEO of one of Nabucco's partners, OMV, insists that the pipeline will be completed despite delays and costs overruns. Turkey's energy and natural resources minister Taner Yildiz is on record stating the "Realization of the Nabucco project is among the key priorities for the Turkish government," according to the website Today.Az. In January, EC President Jose Manuel Barroso visited Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to discuss the pipeline. "Our goal is to have the clear commitments of those countries regarding the Southern Corridor and including, of course, Nabucco," wrote Hurriyet Daily News. European Energy Commission Guenther Oettinger remains a strong supporter, telling Austria's Die Presse that Nabucco owners must be bold and construct the project, because there are enough supplies to build it. "It is clear that there is a certain risk. but if you want to try and make profits without risk, well that doesn't work," he said according to Reuters.

Bulgaria is willing to issue state guarantees for loans taken by state-owned Bulgarian Energy Holding to fund the project, according to Economy and Energy Minister Traicho Traikov as reported in the Sofia Echo. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said the European Investment Bank was willing to extent a 1.2 billion euro banking guarantee to finance Bulgaria's share of the project, representing 100% of Bulgaria's operation, according to the Sofia Echo.

The Fukiyama nuclear disaster, and Europe's reaction to it, seem to be helping the Nabucco cause. In June, the Nabucco consortium signed agreements with transit countries, confirming that the laws of 2011 would apply regardless of what year the pipeline were built, according to UPI. Claudia Kemfert, an energy analyst at the DIW economic institute (Berlin) said, "The new German energy strategy will be a push for Nabucco. It seemed almost dead but the nuclear decision revived it," according to Hurriyet Daily News.

Despite all the positive play, the difficulties for Nabucco seem insurmountable. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin identified some of these issues when he said, "Nabucco's major problem is a lack of guaranteed volumes of raw materials and no source to fill the system...Russia will not deliver anything there, Iranian deposits are not explored, and Azerbaijan's volumes are small. Moreover, Azerbaijan has signed a delivery contract with Russia," according to RIA Novosti. Since the initial gas is supposed to come from Azerbaijan, Putin was saying there was not enough volume to both fill the Russian contract and the pipeline at the same time.

Indeed, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) Vice President Elshad Nassirov was lukewarm about Nabucco in an interview last year that was published in the European Energy Review. Nassirov said that Azerbaijan was not prepared to "put all its eggs in one basket," meaning the Southern Corridor; that Azerbaijan would decide on which pipeline to support based on purchase prices, and transportation terms and tariffs; that it was conceivable that the Azeri gas would be sold only in Turkey and Azerbaijan; that if a pipeline was operating below capacity (because Azerbaijan is only promising 10 bcm per year and Nabucco can carry 31 bcm) Azerbaijan would not subsidize the pipeline's operation.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated his neutrality when speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He said he was giving equal priority to Nabucco as he was to other projects, according to Reuters. In an interview with Rossiya-24 television, he again hedged his support. "We support this project (Nabucco) but with respect to mutual interests. Primarily, we must secure commercial interests and ensure fair prices. There are very many issues related to the transit of our gas, its price for the end consumer and the financing issues of building a new gas pipeline, the role of Azerbaijan as a transit country, since it is clear that Nabucco cannot be filled only with Azerbaijani gas." Aliyev said the Southern Corridor was not just Nabucco, but included at least two other options.

As for the United States, Richard Morningstar continues to hedge his bets. As reported in News.Az, he said at a Baku press conference, "We prefer the Southern Corridor as a whole... As far as what's preferable from the strategic standpoint...the Nabucco pipeline would be the most preferable...we would support any of those pipelines. The question that one will have ultimately to determine is whether a Nabucco pipeline is commercially viable...If a determination is made that the full Nabucco pipeline is not commercially viable...then one would have to look at a smaller approach that would expand as more gas becomes available. That could be ITGI, it could be TAP, or it could even be some form of Nabucco." Morningstar also commented that a merger of the Southern Corridor projects would be helpful.

Since Azerbaijan will not commit its gas resources to Nabucco, the pipeline needs to look at alternative sources such as Turkmenistan, Iraq or Iran. According to Andreas Heinrich, a researcher at the University of Bremen's Center for East Asian Studies, the project does not have a chance unless Central Asian partners, especially Turkmenistan, join the project, according to Today.Az. Turkmenistan is on record as stating they can provide as much natural gas as the pipeline can handle, but has insisted that someone must build a Transcaspian Pipeline to get the gas to the Azeri side of the sea. Political considerations make Iranian gas problematic, and Iraq has not committed to Nabucco, according to UPI. "We have an agreement with the European Union where Iraq is going to supply the EU with some gas, not necessarily from Nabucco," says Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein al-Sharistani. "Iraq is not committed to that project."

Even if the source of gas is eventually determined, BP may have administered a death blow to an independent Nabucco when they doubled it's assessment of the cost of construction to almost 14 billion euros.

In addition, human rights organizations are opposed to Nabucco. On 20 January 2011, a group of 37 civil society groups sent a letter to the International Finance Corporation, which is planning to invest 800 million euros in the project. According to Eurasianet, the letter characterized Nabucco as unsustainable, and called for a review that would involve both supply and transit countries. The activists want civil society concerns factored into the equation. They also point out that it will be difficult to get oil from Turkmenistan across the Caspian, as the legal status of the Caspian remains unresolved. They posit that it would be difficult to get approval from Iran and Russia to build a Trans Caspian pipeline. The group also discusses the possibility of earthquakes and ecological damage.

ENI's CEO summarized the criticisms of Nabucco in testimony before the European Parliament: "We have never seen a pipeline, which needs tens of billions of dollars of investment, that does not have a gas producer as a partner. Nabucco is a consortium of gas consumers, so from our point of view it is not a solid project," reported the M&C website.

There is a possibly viable alternative: the merger of Nabucco with South Stream. In December, Turkish Ambassdor to the European Union Selim Kuneralp told conference participants in Brussels that the ITGI and Nabucco projects were not competitive, but complementary. His comments were followed by US State Department officer Louis Bono wh said the US government favored diversification of European energy sources, and that the best solutions were those with the best chance of commercial viability, according to the website Today.Az. There was no discussion of the strategic importance of Nabucco over the ITGI.

US Ambassador to Italy David Thorne told the Italian daily La Stampa that Nabucco and South Stream might merge. Thorne discussed the role of ENI, the Italian gas giant that is also a major shareholder in South Stream. He commented that ENI's CEO Paolo Scaroni had been in a number of meetings on this subject in both Rome and in Washington. "ENI has changed its approach, favoring a merge under the South Stream and Nabucco pipelines. I would say that we are in a constructive phase," La Stampa quoted the Ambassador, according to UPI. (Scaroni denied the remark, saying it would be impossible to merge with Nabucco since it was a project that still didn't exist, reports Bloomberg. Italian Industry Minister Paolo Romani also said South Stream, ITI and Nabucco were incompatible, according to Hurriyet Daily News.)

Dr. Manuela Troschke, senior researcher at the University of Regensburg's Institute for East European Studies, is also on record as stating a joint solution is what makes economic sense, according to News.Az. At another venue envoy Richard Morningstar made a more forceful statement that the US supports the integration of the Nabucco and ITGI pipelines. "But the final decision will be made by the consortiums," he said according to Today's Zaman. Nabucco CEO Reinhard Mitschek told the Hungarian business daily Vilaggazasag that Russia could ship gas thrugh the pipeline at a later stage, according to Azernews.az. Even EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger has reversed himself and said that Nabucco and South Stream were not direct competitors, according to the Sofia News Agency. The Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies at Harvard University, Dmitry Primus Gorenburg, has also weighed in that "it may make sense to incorporate Gazprom into the Nabucco project--to reduce the political competition over routes and perhaps improve financing prospects," reported the Azeri Press Agency.

Former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer--himself a consultant for Nabucco--has advocated Nabucco merging different partners: ITGI and/or TAP. "We have to integrate the European projects," he told the 2011 European Gas Conference in Vienna. "Business interests would be brought toegether, but, above all, it would allow Europe to diversify." Fischer was not interested in merging with South Stream, however, as merging with a Russian company would do nothing to diversify Europe's energy supply, according to the New York Times.

Reuters also reported that European Union officials are pushing for a merger of Nabucco and ITGI to help secure supplies from Azerbaijan. The European Commission is urging representatives of both projects to merge their operations to keep costs down, and make the project technically and commercially viable. Christian Dolezal, head of communications for Nabucco, acknowledged that talks were taking place at the political level, but denied discussions within the consortium itself. BPmay also be supporting a merger. It's chief of refining and marketing supported ITGI and Nabucco at the same time. "We are going to build a 10 bcm line into Europe that's expandable," reports Fox News. "We've got to stop being preoccupied by the word Nabucco."

If the two pipelines merged, the project would be built in two phases, according to Eurasianet. Southern Corridor Phase I would take the pipeline to Greece and Italy, and Southern Corridor Phase II would include a spur north to Austria.

There are also indications that the Russians may be softening their stand on Nabucco. Gazprom chief Alexi Miller told Der Spiegel that diversification was a good strategy for European energy. When asked about the rival Nabucco pipeline, he said "If the Europeans want a Nabucco pipeline, they should build it. We have nothing against the idea. Nabucco is their problem. Our job is to deliver our gas to our customers as stipulated in our contracts," according to UPI. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Austrian President Heinz Fischer that South Stream was important, but that Nabucco was also important, according to ITAR-TASS.

Conclusion: while there is still much support for an independent Nabucco pipeline, the number of government officials, businessmen and independent analysts who have criticized the viability of the project is telling. More and more, the indications are that before construction begins in 2015 Nabucco may merge with another pipeline.