Europe went after a 'pipe dream' to counter Russia -- and it's working

Putin russia lukashenka belarus Berdymukhamedov turkmenstianReuters/RIA Novosti/KremlinPutin with Turkmen president Berdymukhamedov.

Europe has taken a swing at Russian gas.

The EU has been buttering up Turkmenistan, which has the fourth-largest known gas reserves, and Azerbaijan over the last year with the aim of shifting away from Russian gas.

And it looks like the efforts have paid off.

“Europe expects supplies of Turkmen gas to begin by 2019,” Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, told Reuters in May.

“We have good mutual understanding. For Turkmenistan it is very important to diversify its export options, while for the EU it is very important to diversify its imports,” he added.

Notably, as The Diplomat points out, “this is the first time the EU has put a date on what has traditionally been regarded as a pipe dream.”

Traditionally, about one-third of the gas that Europe guzzles comes from Russia. However, Europe’s gotten nervous about the state of Russian gas over the last year following the on-and-off conflict in Ukraine. Furthermore, Moscow tends to use its arsenal of gas pipelines as tools of coercion — much to Europe’s annoyance.

“I think that Europe has really got tired of each summer having a discussion of how to make it through the next winter. The world’s biggest economy should not have such concerns in the 21st century,” Sefcovic told the Financial Times back in February.

Russia gas pipelineReutersMap of Europe showing planned gas pipelines in the region. Includes proposed Gazprom pipeline to Europe through Turkey.

Last year, Turkey and Turkmenistan signed a preliminary agreement that would take gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea via the Trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline project (TANAP). It’s expected to be completed by the end of 2018.

And this May, Sefcovic visited the energy ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan to discuss the construction of a 300 km trans-Caspian pipeline that would connect to the TANAP to bring gas to Europe across the Caspian Sea. (And, notably, Turkmenistan recently completed its East-West pipeline, which connects the main pipelines within the country.)

This project’s been a proposed for years, but political and economic problems have chronically delayed it. Notably, Russian and Iran have “voiced objections to laying a pipeline on the bottom of the Caspian, saying this could harm the fragile ecology of the shallow sea.”

But “now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction,” Sefcovic told Reuters.

He declined to say exactly how much gas Turkmenistan will (and could) supply Europe with, although Turkmen officials previously stated that negotiations swirled around 10-30bcm of gas per year.

Europe’s reinvigorated interest in the so-called “southern gas corridor” comes not long after the January announcement of the Turkish Stream, and OAO Gazprom project and the abandonment of the $US45 billion South Stream project in December.

The key geopolitical takeaway regarding both projects is that they’re supposed to bypass crumbling Ukraine — which would allow Russia to both maintain its gas leverage over the EU and hurt Kiev. In any case, neither Europe nor Russia is laying down without a fight.

In the end, as the Diplomat notes, the latest development largely depends on post-Soviet Turkmenistan — and whether it will “move forward with the political decisions necessary to bring its natural gas to Europe.”

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