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Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych

Viktor Fedorovych YanukovychYanukovych

Nabucco – hot air instead of natural gas

No other project better represents the EU's energy security better than the anticipated Nabucco Pipeline. The pipeline could end up pumping more air to Europe than the intended natural gas. It is a political project which makes very little practical sense. An op-ed by Stefan Bernhardt

The completion of the first line of the Nord Stream Pipeline towards the end of 2011 and the upcoming completion of the second line towards the end of 2012 once again raises questions regarding the EU's energy security. EU media reports continually state that the dependence on Russian natural gas must be reduced. With this rationale, planning for the Nabucco Pipeline began in 2002. According to the EU Commission, the increasing demand for natural gas of the EU Members may also be covered. This may only be the case, however, if Nabucco is actually built. The EU's public communication has been embarrassing since the start of the planning phase. Construction and transport of natural gas should have already started; instead, all levels of the project are repeatedly postponed. According to the Nabucco Pipeline Consortium, construction is currently planned to begin in 2013.

The 7.9 billion Euro project was signed in partnership between Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria in 2009, more than seven years after the planning began. Eventually, the pipeline should serve as an alternative to the South Stream Pipeline of Gazprom through the Black Sea. The natural gas for the Nabucco Pipeline will be sourced from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East. This project is certainly a big challenge, regardless of its usefulness in practice.

Practically useless

The supplier countries are not even certain of their participation. On the cutting board at the moment are Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and, for the time being, Iran. They, at best, signed letters of intent. A natural gas pipeline connecting extant Nabucco blueprints and Central Asia over the Caspian Sea is also missing. There also remain problems with Turkey as a transit country; its involvement in Nabucco and South Stream establish it as an energy hub to much diplomatic advantage in relations with both the EU and Russia.

However, Nabucco has more practical problems. Even at the maximum yearly capacity of 31 billion cubic meters natural gas, with the EU’s current yearly consumption of about 500 billion cubic meters, the Nabucco pipeline supplies merely six percent of the usage. This simple calculation does not account for the 15 percent to which Turkey is entitled. How this will reduce dependence on Russia remains a mystery, especially considering the decades-long contract period with Russia and the impossibility of reliably predicting demand for natural gas usage in the EU.

The “better” suppliers

But are the potential new suppliers morally acceptable, safer and therefore better than Russia? Turkmenistan is a dictatorship. Its last ruler modestly referred to himself as Turkmenbashi, Head of the Turkmen, and maintained his cult of personality which strongly resembled North Korea's. The new President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamdov, previously Vice Prime Minister and Turkmenbashi´s dentist, has so far not done any democratic reforms. Apart from that, Turkmenistan is so isolated that gauging political stability is impossible. Azerbaijan is ruled by the second generation of the Alijev family. As long a fraction of the billions of US dollars of resources trickles down to the people, it will maintain relative stability. The unresolved conflict with Armenia regarding the Karabkh region could otherwise quickly lead the country into a war.

Iran as supplier is out, too, because of its nuclear program. In Iraq the natural gas reserves are lying in the Kurdish areas of North Iraq; problematic, owing to the dispute between the regional and central government in Baghdad regarding the ownership of the resources and political instability of country in general. Egypt is destabilized by its continuing revolution and therefore represents another element of uncertainty. Perhaps the EU has a special perspective, but to declare dictators and politically unstable nations to be superior natural gas suppliers to Russia seems more bold than it is prudent. This is to say nothing about the moral democratic implications which are of at least ostensible importance to the EU.

Think about it calmly

The practical hurdles are surmountable. The inherent contradictions in which the EU is involved with the project are quite easily solved. Perhaps the EU wants to reduce the dependence on Russia because the Kremlin cannot maintain its illusion as a democracy or because the conflicts with Ukraine prove too exhausting. If the EU is motivated by fear of Russia or by lack of confidence, then a rival pipeline which may offend Moscow is hardly good decision-making. This would aggravate the problem rather than solving it.

Instead of investing nearly eight billion Euro in a pipeline which may well transport more air than natural gas while simultaneously funneling money to questionably undemocratic regimes, it may be smarter to attempt a diplomatic solution with Russia. Confidence-building measures and increased exchange through facilitated visas may ease distrust more effectively. Regardless of Nabucco’s construction, the problems with Russia will remain.