WASHINGTON – Despite the economic sanctions caused by its military intervention in Ukraine and the horrible impact of collapsed oil prices on a weak Russian economy, Putin’s Russia is still the largest energy supplier to Europe. This ability to affect the supply of a most basic commodity is Russia’s major political advantage vis-a-vis Europe. Think about it, even the Kiev government, openly at war with Russia-funded rebels in the East, has to negotiate deals about gas supplies from Russia, its enemy.
The problem is that at least in the short or medium term not much can be done to change this situation. And the Europeans are certainly not helping themselves very much.
Theoretically, some alternatives could be explored. There are glimmers of a possibility to create new natural gas supplies in some European countries that have deposits of shale gas. But a combination of bad policy choices and outright Russian meddling are preventing any further exploration of these opportunities.
The French government, in its wisdom, banned fracking, the technology necessary to exploit the shale gas deposits that France seems to have. Bulgaria, apparently because of political pressures from Moscow, also banned fracking. Therefore, no Bulgarian gas that may compete with Russian supplies.
The UK tries fracking
Only the United Kingdom seems to be willing to go ahead and exploit what may be considerable domestic shale gas deposits. But in Great Britain the problem is a vociferous environmental movement strongly opposed to carbon energy in general, and therefore also to shale gas exploration.
Some gas will come through Turkey
Well, there is a bright note in this rather disappointing scenario. As reported last year by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, (Turkey, Azerbaijan break ground for Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline), at least Turkey is doing something to create alternative gas supplies to Europe. The Ankara government, working with its counterparts in Azerbaijan and Georgia, launched the South Caucasus pipeline, the first component of a longer pipeline that will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea all the way to the Mediterranean, via Turkey. The Turkish component of this large project is called TANAP, or Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline.
Diversified energy supplies
Along with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline that carries Caspian oil to the Turkish southern port of Ceyhan via Georgia, this new project now underway will create some energy supplies diversification for Europe. It is something. But unfortunately not enough. Energy poor Europe still has to buy most of its oil and gas from Russia.
US gas to Europe?
In the future, America may be able to export some of its abundant natural gas to Western Europe. But this will take a long time. And it will not be in quantities large enough to replace Russian gas supplies. In any event, at the moment there are not enough Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in the US and in Europe that could handle large volumes. Building these terminals is quite expensive and it takes years to complete them.
At the end of the day, as odd as this may seem, this beat up Russia, run by oligarchs and kleptocrats, with the ruble falling, and billions of dollars leaving the country, still wins.