How Europe could limit its energy dependence on Russia

A natural gas line runs through the country side on March 11, 2015 outside Donetsk, Ukraine
7 min read
08 February, 2022
Analysis: The Ukraine crisis once again highlights the fragility of Europe's energy security landscape, but what realistic alternatives are there to Russian gas?

The latest Russian-Ukrainian escalation, and President Vladimir Putin’s demands, have once again brought forward the vulnerabilities of the European energy security landscape.

With Germany, one of the EU’s key players, being heavily reliant on Russian gas and some 35% of EU gas imports arriving from Moscow, the European need for diversifying its energy resources seems more crucial than ever.

Looking into the EU’s individual imports, Russian gas accounts for almost half in Germany, around 40% in Italy, and approximately 20% in France.

However, this debate is far from new. Since the Euromaidan protests and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Western countries and EU members have placed energy at the centre of the policy agenda, seeking alternative options to overturn the current status quo.

But what realistic alternatives could Europe utilise, and how did the continent come to be so energy-dependent on Russia?

"Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Western countries and EU members have placed energy at the centre of the policy agenda"

Current routes and practical limitations

Currently, there are certain established and in-the-making routes that could be used by Europe as an alternative to the Russian gas flow, most of which come with their own limitations.

One is the Baltic Pipe, a major project which could supply Europe with Norwegian gas through Denmark’s connection with Poland. This ambitious initiative could drastically limit Russian influence in the region and was originally scheduled to be operational by autumn 2022, along with the expiration of Gazprom's long-term contracts with Poland.

However, Denmark’s re-evaluation of the permit terms could put at risk the short-term objectives of the project, leading to further Polish reliance on Moscow.

The primary gas field in Europe, located in Groningen, Netherlands, is expected to increase its short-term production amidst unprecedented conditions in European demand and supply energy balance.

But realistically, Groningen could not really support Europe’s energy diversification agenda in the long term. The field has been gradually marginalised and is set to be abandoned by 2030 over safety concerns, as gas production in the area has been directly linked to increased seismic activity over the past decades.

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The famous Southern Gas corridor, as materialised by the TANAP/TAP project, is another interesting case that could secure the flow of Azeri gas through Turkey all the way to Greece, Albania, Italy, and possibly central and northern Europe. This gas route totally excludes Russia from the game; however, two key points need to be considered.

Firstly, estimated production from Baku in the long-term could hardly cover a significant portion of European needs, and, secondly, there is a possibility of Turkey using it as leverage. Indeed, Ankara is the key player in this route, and it is no exaggeration to say that President Erdogan - or one of his successors - might instrumentalise this advantage to press Europe over political issues, the same way Putin currently does.

Looking at southern Europe, Spain has been considered a major player in the effort to limit Russian supplies in the past. The country has been receiving vast volumes of its natural gas from Algeria either directly through the Medgaz pipeline or via Morocco through the recently defunct Maghreb-Europe (MGE) pipeline.

But Madrid has also heavily invested in its LNG infrastructure over recent decades and could significantly boost Europe’s energy sufficiency outlook through its regasification plants and storage capacity.

Talks To Defuse Russia-Ukraine Tensions Resolve Little
The latest Russian-Ukrainian escalation has once again brought forward the vulnerabilities of the European energy security landscape. [Getty]

Since 2014, Spain has been promoting the idea of the so-called MidCat project or the Midi-Catalunya pipeline, as an alternative that could counterbalance the dependence on Russia by transferring gas to Europe from Spanish plants through France. But both MidCat and MGE have been discontinued over political and economic barriers.

The failure of these initiatives, as dictated by domestic socio-political controversy in Spain concerning MidCat and the standoff between Morocco and Algeria in the case of MGE, highlight the practical limitations set by particular circumstances at the national level and the effect of international politics.

The attractive prospect of Qatari LNG

US President Joe Biden met with Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar in late January. Among the key points discussed was the “stability of global energy supplies”, while Biden disclosed his plans to name Qatar as a major non-NATO ally. It should be no surprise that the US looks at Qatar as a reasonable solution to limit Russian energy influence in Europe.

The vast amounts of Qatari gas could cover a considerable amount of European energy needs, transferred to the continent in liquid form (LNG), under the right circumstances.

"Qatar is due to more than double its production output of LNG in the next 5 years and is looking for long-term customers to buy this so far uncontracted gas,” Dr Andreas Krieg, Associate Professor at King’s College London, told The New Arab. “Europe needs to diversify its gas imports away from pipelined gas from Russia and move towards LNG from alternative sources”.

"Qatar can help build critical LNG infrastructure on the continent as well as provide Europe with long-term price and supply security that unlike the Russian gas does not run the risk of ever being politicised"

However, under the current situation, European plants and mechanisms could hardly fulfil the potential of such a crucial move. “Europe still requires the infrastructure to handle and store LNG effectively across the continent,” Dr Krieg added.  

“Here, Qatar can help build critical LNG infrastructure on the continent as well as provide Europe with long-term price and supply security that unlike the Russian gas does not run the risk of ever being politicised”.

The strategic significance of the Eastern Mediterranean and Greece

Over the past two decades, the Eastern Mediterranean has surfaced as a new centre of interest for energy security. The Israeli Leviathan, the Egyptian Zohr, and the Cypriot Glaucus fields underscore the strategic importance and potential of the region. This is the very reason for the establishment of the grandiose, though dubious, EastMed pipeline project.

Greece, however, remains one of the actors unduly delaying active engagement in research and drilling activity. Dr Aris Stefatos, CEO of state-owned Hellenic Hydrocarbon Resources Management S.A., recently confirmed that there is substantial evidence that Greece could have remarkable amounts of gas reserves, especially in the area of Crete.

If those amounts, which so far have remained unexploited by consecutive Greek administrations, are eventually utilised, then Greece could rise as a considerable regional energy hub, able to provide Europe with a secure alternative to Russian supplies.

"Following the discovery of the giant Zohr field, the expectations on the size of the hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean region have been significantly increased. In any case, LNG could not fully replace Russian gas in the European markets,” Dr Konstantinos Grivas, Professor of Geopolitics at the Hellenic Military Academy and the Department of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the National University of Athens, told The New Arab.

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“Thus, in the neo-Cold War international system, the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are profoundly vital for Europe’s energy survival. Greece could emerge as one of the key players in this system, acting as a focal point within a group of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, responsible for extracting and transferring those regional hydrocarbon resources to Europe," the professor added.

In this context, a realistic approach is imperative for European interests. Short-term estimates, focusing on the volatility of gas prices but losing the broader picture, have blocked timely and purposeful steps concerning the exploitation of resources and the development of major projects.

Excessive socio-political agendas and domestic grievances, which neglect the long-term implications for European energy security and the importance of energy self-sufficiency, should be put aside. Natural gas could be embraced as the key element for a smooth shift to the new era, where the net-zero carbon emissions target could be responsibly achieved.

As long as the European Union remains lost between a green energy transition strategy and its self-imposed geopolitical barriers, Moscow will certainly maintain or even expand its grip across the continent.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris