An important pipeline project in the Mediterranean has been caught in a web of conflicting security and energy policy across Europe and beyond. To prevent an energy crisis for our allies and take away Russian leverage, the Biden administration should give it’s full support to the project.
The EastMed Pipeline was designed to bring natural gas from the offshore fields of Israel and Cyprus across Greece to Italy and Bulgaria. In 2013, the European Commission designated the pipeline a “Project of Common Interest” and invested tens of millions of dollars in technical, economic and environmental studies. It was estimated that the pipeline could send as much as 20 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe annually. In 2019, the energy ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority created the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. Notice that Turkey, a NATO member, was not included.
At the end of 2020, Congress passed legislation that included support for constructing pipelines and liquified natural gas terminals, and created a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Then-secretary of energy Dan Brouillette announced his department’s support for the project.
America’s friends and allies banded together to increase and diversify energy supplies in Europe. So, why—in 2022—would the Biden administration privately and unofficially tell a Greek official that the U.S. no longer supports the project?
EastMed, as it turns out, is in the crossfire of economic, foreign and energy policy across a number of very different countries, continents and operating philosophies.
When the Biden administration came into office, one of its first official acts was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline designed to transport oil from Canada across the United States. The cancellation, along with a moratorium on most hydraulic fracking, was announced as a move to support clean energy.
Amos Hochstein, now Biden’s senior advisor for energy security, has said he would be “extremely uncomfortable with the U.S. supporting” EastMed because of its environmental implications. “Why would we build a fossil fuel pipeline between the EastMed and Europe when our entire policy is to support new technology…and new investments in going green and in going clean?” Hochstein said, as reported in The Jerusalem Post. “By the time this pipeline is built we will have spent billions of taxpayer money on something that is obsolete—not only obsolete but against our collective interest.”
He probably didn’t check that with the Europeans.
It can’t have escaped Hochstein’s notice that in 2019, the U.S. became a net total energy exporter for the first time since 1952. After the cancellation of Keystone XL, as prices inevitably rose with the lessened supply, the Biden administration was forced to ask OPEC and Russia to increase their production to fill the gaps. OPEC’s initial response was “no.” But as the price rose—to over $86 bbl. in December—OPEC and Russia approved an increase in production.
As a foreign policy matter, Turkey and Russia heavily disapproved of the entire EastMed project, which did not include either of them. Although Israel has said more than once that Turkey should be included in the consortium, Ankara has adamantly declined because it claims part of the energy resources of Cyprus as its own. Russia, for its part, would be happy to scuttle the pipeline to ensure its monopoly in Europe.
Russia already has enormous leverage. It is January and it is cold. Europeans are now facing shortages of natural gas, as Russia reduced its exports to Europe by more than 41 percent from the level of January 2021. It’s not that Russia can’t deliver more; it just chooses not to. The EU‘s competition commissioner said she is “eagerly awaiting” Gazprom’s response to questions about insufficient deliveries. But International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Fatih Birol had the answer, saying European countries “face significant risks” by relying heavily on one supplier. “We see strong elements of ‘artificial tightness’ in European gas markets, which appears to be due to the behavior of Russia’s state-controlled gas supplier.”
It had been U.S. policy in the prior administration to stymie the Russians as much as possible—and so, it not only supported EastMed, but also opposed the Nord Stream II pipeline. The Biden administration’s operating philosophy is different.
The final foreign policy element in the EastMed story is the Russia-U.S.-NATO standoff over Russian threats to Ukraine. The West has very few good options—threatening Russia with a war in Europe over Ukraine is not a winning strategy. The Biden administration may be trying other ideas, such as enticing Vladimir Putin into a more conciliatory position by removing a thorn in Russia’s side—even as the Russian president makes it clear to Europe that as cold as they are, he can make them colder. Or, more ominously, the administration may be encouraging Turkey to support the Ukrainians with weapons the U.S. cannot supply—Turkey has supplied drones and other equipment, angering Russia.
At the bottom of the morass of economic, energy and foreign policy, a few well-known axioms are striving to make themselves heard: energy independence is best, energy diversity is good, working with your friends and allies on both is crucial. EastMed should be supported.