James J. Coyle: Azerbaijan, Kuwait of the Caucasus?
By JAMES J. COYLE / For the Register
Published: Jan. 9, 2014 Updated: 2:28 p.m.
It was the coldest January in a century. Throughout Italy and Southern Europe, people shivered in their homes. The year was 2009 and Russia had turned off the flow of natural gas over a price dispute with Ukraine. It was the second time in three years the Russians had closed the spigot. The European Union decided something needed to be done to protect their citizenry. Europe imports one third of its natural gas from Russia and the Russians had shown themselves to be unreliable suppliers.
The EU decided to support a pipeline to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, avoiding Russian territory and Russian infrastructure. This project was declared to be of community-wide importance, and was deemed eligible for EU grants to help with the construction costs. The original pipeline, named Nabucco after Verdi’s opera, was supposed to run from Baku, Azerbaijan to Baumgarten, Austria. It would carry 33 billion cubic meters, or bcm, per year. Azerbaijan pledged 10 billion bcm and encouraged the EU to find additional sources.
The Russians were alarmed: while Nabucco would only supply approximately 5 percent of Europe’s gas needs, it would break Gazprom’s monopoly on delivering pipeline gas from the East. It would gradually move Russia more to the edge of European energy concerns, instead of keeping it front and center. To counter this, Gazprom announced its own, rival pipeline project: South Stream. Designed to carry 63 bcm per annum, South Stream would take gas that had previously transited Ukraine and send it directly to Europe under the Black Sea. The EU refused to grant it the status of a community project, because it did not diversify the source away from Russia.
When the EU proved unable to make Nabucco work, Azerbaijan and Turkey decided to build the Trans Anatolian Pipeline. From 2018 on, this line is designed to carry 16 bcm per year of natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas field, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Six billion cubic meters will be offloaded in Turkey, leaving 10 bcm for delivery to Europe. TANAP will link up with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline at the Turkish border and the natural gas will be delivered to Greece and Italy. Eventually, as more Caspian gas becomes available, TANAP can double its capacity. Over the longer term,TANAP/TAP could supply 20 percent of Europe’s energy demand. A group of companies led by British Petroleum has signed a $45 billion deal to expand the gas field and construct the pipelines. The big question is whether TANAP/TAP can be built since Russia has already begun construction of the much larger South Stream to service the same markets?
On Dec. 4, the executive arm of the EU, the European Commission, announced that South Stream would not be able to operate on EU territory unless it complies with the EU’s Third Energy Package. This is a series of rules and regulations designed to increase competition in the European energy sector. The major impact on Russia: the package states that an energy supplier must “unbundle” itself from the energy distribution system. In other words, if Gazprom wished to sell natural gas to Europe, it could not own the pipeline system that would deliver it.
When the package was originally announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin had cried foul. He said the Third Energy Package was theft, a European attempt to seize Russian strategic assets. Gazprom decided to ignore the package and signed bilateral agreements with seven European transit countries (six EU members and Serbia, an EU-aspirant).
A European Commission official stated that if negotiations began immediately, it would take at least two years for the community to reach an agreement with Russia over implementation of the package. In the interim, the bilateral agreements that Russia had negotiated were all in breach of EU law. “We have told these states that they are under the obligation, either coming from the EU treaties, or from the Energy Community treaty, that they have to ask for re-negotiation with Russia, to bring the intergovernmental agreements in line with EU law,” said Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, director for energy markets at the European Commission.
The objection is not only to Gazprom’s failure to “unbundle” its ownership of the pipeline. The project also fails to meet the requirement that any pipeline system must grant access to other suppliers, and there are unresolved questions over how the price of the gas will be determined.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, took the position that the bilateral treaties were governed by international law, which trumped EU law. EU energy spokesperson Marlene Holzner responded that any member state who did not renegotiate with the Russians would be subject to penalties for infringement of EU regulations. The pipeline could be built, and Russia could fill it with gas, but no European state would be able to purchase it. Holzner added that, in her opinion, no bank would be interested in financing a project based on such legal uncertainty.
Given the complexities of the issues involved, southern European hopes are now squarely on the TANAP/TAP Southern Energy Corridor. British Foreign Secretary William Hague commented, “It will increase our energy security by providing an additional route and a new source for gas supplies to Europe. There is also the potential to expand the southern corridor to reach major gas suppliers in the Middle East, which could bring huge additional benefits.” BP’s vice president, Al Cook, concurred, noting that the pipelines were being built to accommodate gas from other suppliers.
Thus, European energy independence begins with the delivery of Azerbaijani natural gas. James J. Coyle is a professor and the director of Global Education at Chapman University and chair of the Eurasian Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.