New gas pipeline bolsters Europe’s bid to ease Russian supplies

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Mountainous and isolated, the Greek-Bulgarian border once formed the southern corner of the Iron Curtain. Today, this is where the European Union is redrawing the energy map of the region to reduce its heavy dependence on Russian natural gas.

A new gas pipeline – built during the COVID-19 pandemic, tested and expected to enter commercial service in June – would ensure that large volumes of gas flow between the two countries in both directions to generate electricity, supply the industry and heating homes.

The energy nexus takes on greater importance following Moscow’s decision this week to cut natural gas supply to Poland and Bulgaria on a request for payments in rubles stemming from Western sanctions over the Ukrainian war.

The 180-kilometre (110-mile) gas pipeline project is the first of several planned gas interconnectors that would give members of the Eastern European Union and countries hoping to join the 27-nation bloc access to the global gas market.

In the short term, it is the safeguard of Bulgaria.

The new gas pipeline connection, called the Greece-Bulgaria Gas Interconnector, will give the country access to ports in neighboring Greece that import liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and will also transport gas from Azerbaijan through a new gas pipeline system that ends in Italy.

It is one of many efforts by EU members to shift their energy mixes, with some returning to high-emitting coal while planning increased generation of renewables.

Germany, the world’s largest buyer of Russian energy, is looking to build LNG import terminals that would take years. Italy, another major importer of Russian gas, has deals with AlgeriaAzerbaijan, Angola and Congo for gas supply.

The European Union wants to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds this year and phase it out completely in five years through alternative sources, the use of wind and solar power, and conservation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should accelerate changes in the EU’s long-term strategy as the bloc adjusts to more expensive but also more integrated energy between member countries, said Simone Tagliapietra, energy expert at Brussels think tank Bruegel.

“It’s a new world,” he said. “And in this new world, it is clear that Russia does not want to be part of an international order as we think it is.”

Tagliapietra added: “The strategy – especially of Germany – over the past 50 years has always been to engage with Russia on energy. … But given what we see in Ukraine and Russia’s view of international relations, it’s not the kind of country we would like to do business with.”

EU policymakers say that while Eastern European members are among the most dependent on Russian gas, the size of their markets makes the problem manageable. Bulgaria imported 90% of its gas from Russia, but only consumes 3 billion cubic meters a year, 30 times less than Germany’s main consumer, according to 2020 data from EU statistics agency Eurostat.

The Greece-Bulgaria pipeline will complement the existing European network, much of which dates back to Soviet times, when Moscow sought much-needed funds for its faltering economy and Western suppliers to help build its pipelines.

The link will link the town of Komotini in northeastern Greece and Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria and will allow Bulgaria and its neighbors with new grid connections to access the global gas market in expansion.

This includes a connection with the newly built Trans Adriatic pipeline, which carries gas from Azerbaijan, and liquefied natural gas suppliers arriving by ship, likely to include Qatar, Algeria and the United States.

No less than eight additional interconnections could be built in Eastern Europe, as far as Ukraine and Austria.

The 240 million euro ($250 million) pipeline will transport 3 billion cubic meters of gas per year, with an option to expand to 5 billion. It has received funding from Bulgaria, Greece and the EU, and enjoys strong political support from Brussels and the United States.

On the ground, the project faced multiple blockages due to supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Receiving specialist parts and moving staff after construction began in early 2020 quickly became increasingly difficult, said Antonis Mitzalis, executive director of Greek contractor AVAX, which oversaw the project.

Pipeline construction was completed in early April, he said, while work and testing at two measuring stations and software installation are in the final stages.

“We had a sequence in mind. But the fact that some materials didn’t arrive made us rework that sequence, sometimes with a cost effect,” Mitzalis said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis missed a visit to the site last month after contracting COVID-19. He spoke on Wednesday with his Bulgarian counterpart, Kiril Petkov, to ensure Greek support.

“Bulgaria and Greece will continue to work together for energy security and diversification – of strategic importance for both countries and the region,” Petkov tweeted afterwards. “We are both confident that IGB will be successful on schedule.” ___

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

___ Follow Gatopoulos on https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos

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