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Some Applications of Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics Thinking to Current Geopolitical Issues

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In recent decades, there has been a development of several related concepts, some under the category of thermodynamics, which may be applied, to some degree, to the current geopolitical scene.

One is the perception of organization in this universe as ordered energy flows. This perspective can be characterized as ‘‘non equilibrium thermodynamics”. Probably the foremost and broadest scale explicant of this way of looking at the universe is cosmologist Eric Chaisson, now at Harvard. One of his signature books is ‘Cosmic Evolution’ .

Chaisson quantifies energy flows, and relates them to structures, at stellar, galactic, planetary, and even life levels. He relates complexity, at each of these levels, to ‘energy rate densities’. Somewhat surprisingly, he points out that energy rate densities in life forms exceeds those of cosmic structures such as suns. He also identifies energy rate densities of different types of life organization, such as plants and animals, and even the structure of industrial human activities, such as cities, airplanes, etc.

On separate but related themes, explorations of concepts such as ‘hierarchy theory’ and ‘emergence’ have shown that all structures at the scale humans perceive are in a sense hierarchic. Simple atoms make up complex, heavy atoms, atoms make up complex elements often described as molecules and chemical species, molecular structures make up, or are involved in, life structures, single cells make up multicellular organisms, both single cells, at their level, and multicellular organisations make up what we tend to call social systems, and so forth. (e.g. in currently visible human terms, cities are clumped in States, or provinces, states in an United States, ‘nation states’ around the world in the United Nations; or at lower levels franchisees under franchisors, etc,) In this framework, each level of aggregation is seen as a system of relationships, and a differentiated unit at that level joins with other elements, or systems, in a set of stabilized relationships to form the next level of hierarchy.

All these ordered systems involve — or more accurately consist of — stabilized energy flows, or, equivalently, stable systems of relationships, in energy flows. A condensed public summary of this perspective, with citations, is available.

Insights which arise in this perspective include that all organization is combinatorial — combinations of elements. Relatedly, ‘emergent’ effects of any combination of elements upon other combinations which it encounters are the effects of the organization as a whole as distinguished from the effects of its components might have were they not bound in their particular organization. That is, all organized systems are identified and in effect measured, or given meaning, by other systems in terms of the relationships system-to-system, so to speak.

This is an highly condensed overview, but one can get further, and somewhat complementary, clues concerning the stream of thought by looking at some of the work involved in the International Big History Association, including some of its leading members such as Fred Spier and David Christian. This Association traces cosmic evolution from its origins through human historical processes, in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. The Association is recently formed, and its work is evolving in form and content.

Another architectural insight has been offered by Mark Buchanan, in his book ‘Ubiquity’ , to the effect that, as far as he could identify, all phenomena seemed to fall on ‘power law’, or log normal, statistical distributions — wars, city sizes, wealth distributions, earthquakes, etc.   This author has suggested that this is because all ordered phenomena consist of, or arise from, correlational processes, and such correlational processes produce this sort of statistical distribution.

Lastly, for initial introduction, a set of theories, or concepts, called ‘maximum entropy production’ (MEP) suggests, in general layman’s conceptualization, that given a differential (e.g. heat, or temperature, differential), it will be dissipated by all available means, and at situation-quantifiable rates, with common statistical signatures.  

Now to human societies, and the relationships between them. Each society is a group, and a group of groups. For each of these groups to have sustained coherence, its constituents must have stable inter-se relationships, or systems of relationships. But for any given group or set of groups to coexist with others, rather than devouring or being devoured by others, they must work out modi vivendi, so to speak. They must somehow establish complementarities, or symbiotic relationships, or at least non-lethal sets of relationships. Each and all must have an energy basis — a flow of energy into and through the stable system of relationships.

In large scale agricultural society examples, all ‘empires’ are hierarchic, in the sense of being made up by a coordinating mechanism which maintains relationships between component elements.

In analysing any given society, or set of them, we have to follow the energy flows. Karl Marx’s thesis that societies are structured by their means of production translates into the view that any given society, or set of them, will have institutions (regular patterns of activity embodying energy flows) which feed off of, embody and maintain the energetics of the system.

‘Agricultural’ societies can be seen as group-organized means of harvesting the photosynthetic capture of energy by plants, plus the energy of other-animal harvesters of the plants (‘livestock’). ‘Industrial’ societies maintain the plant and animal harvesting base, but have taken flight, so to speak, by capturing stored and concentrated energy of the residues of past eons of plant life on earth.

Since this cache of stored plant energy is finite and its boundaries are visible, it increasingly appears that if the multibillion human complex thus created is to be maintained in some form, over decades and centuries, humans will have to move to reliance on artifactual photosynthesis (AKA ’solar energy’), supplemented by wind energy, tapping the energy of breakdowns of heavy, complex atoms (nuclear energy), and perhaps some trace additions of current and earth-stored biological photosynthesis. Perhaps the best references for the data and analysis underlying this perspective are an international review of renewable energy sources,   and a conceptually elegant report by Sandia Laboratory personnel.  

We currently tend to call this a ‘renewable’ energy society. But it can be seen as a larger scale, current technological, or artifactual, or human-mediated, direct harvesting of sunlight, bypassing the biological processes of other organisms, past and present. In addition there seems a likelihood of harvesting of the differentials created by differentials in sunlight on the Earth’s surface (wind energy), with limited additional sourcing.

We tend to think of this all as a human created and engineered mastering of energy flows. But let us try to look at it from the Universe’s point of view, were the Universe to bother itself, apart from creating ourselves, to have one. From a thermodynamics perspective, from Chaisson on down, one can consider that life itself was created as a means of channelling energy flows to reducing differentials caused by universal ordering, as proposed by Santa Fe Institute researchers.   Derivatively, all our institutions, being driven by energy differentials and flows, and ourselves, can be seen as expressions of thermodynamic forces. We are, from such a point of view, but the enablers of Chaisson’s energy density rate functions.  

Lest this expression be interpreted as a whimsy to attract attention, I will use it to make suggestions about how current and future societies may tend to work out.

Let us consider the turbulent Middle East. Also we can consider the Soviet Union, and nearby Euro-asian areas.

Assuming no system-wide catastrophic breakdown, the stored plant energy potentials of these areas have been and will continue to be tapped. Pipelines will be built. Streams of oil tankers will continue.

This does not mean that there will not be intrastate and interstate maneuvering about where, when, and at what rate. Water flows downhill. But humans make dams, channels, irrigation projects, etc. And we humans do a lot of squabbling about how to create and divide up participation in reservoirs and flow systems over and outside political boundaries. Elinor Ostrom was given a Nobel prize for her careful and extensive work on how such situations, particularly those involving economic ‘commons’, have been successfully managed. Her prescriptions are worth careful attention.

The fractured and fractious political organizations of the Persian Gulf area have been, to some extent, and are likely gradually to be shaped to allow these energy concentrations to be distributed, or, to use MEP logic, dissipated. If democracies cannot reliably be constructed, autocracies and dynasties will have to conform themselves to these requirements. If they cannot do so, then possibly ‘trusteeships’ might be constructed by the world’s hydrocarbon thirsty and consuming polities. The political entities in the area will be monitored for efficiency and stability. This may lead to assistance, if possible; reshaping if necessary: both from outside their boundaries, and, possibly to a lesser degree, from within.  

Though thinly populated in many of its parts, Russia will, from its vast and central position on the Eurasian land mass, continue to feed gas into the highly organized energy transformation and use systems of Europe, and perhaps also China. It will also continue to be a source of other resources. (There may be some question whether the Easternmost portion of Russia remains European oriented, or becomes Sinified to such an extent as to lead to rearrangement of the State identification and administration.)

Around the globe the hydrocarbon potentials available from fracturing rocks will also continue to be developed, geographically unevenly but widely, on and adjacent to several continents. The phasing will be partially gated over time by relative efficiencies as between the hydrocarbon pools of the Middle East, Venezuela, and Canada, and ‘shale’ systems elsewhere. And the extent and rate of rock mining for hydrocarbons may be affected by the efficiencies of emerging photovoltaics based energy systems. But the techniques and tools are in hand, so to speak, in use, and expansible at current and sufficiently rewarded EROEI (energy return on energy investment) ratios.

Two factors seem likely to limit, or boundary, these extractions from the energy concentrations of life’s past, other than exhaustion. One is the possibility that the atmospheric temperature effects of the gaseous emissions from freeing up all these hydrocarbons — particularly carbon dioxide — will so disrupt the organic processes of current life as to arrest the whole process. The other is, as noted, the apparent potential of tapping the vastly larger solar energy flux of Earth to entrain larger energy flows with lesser disruption of current life patterns.

The first potential limitation has engendered much attention, but limited current effect, other than to lead to some effort to manage replacement of hydrocarbon mining by tapping the global solar energy flux — ‘renewable energy’ technologies, including the ancillary and necessary technologies to make solar energy universal, convenient, and supportive of at least the current level of human activity.

Efforts to coordinate limitations on ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions may slow the rate of increase, but seem far short of capping or reducing such emissions in immediately upcoming decades.

The salient geopolitical consequences of this projected transition to artifactual solar energy are interesting in a number of respects, prominently two.

First, artifactual solar energy capture, like biological, is inherently geographically extensive. The capture systems may be on the whole more southerly (take note, Northern Europe), and less co-located with water (but still dependent on some water to keep the needed biological support mechanisms in place). Whether this leads to massive territory wars like those of the agricultural era remains to be seen. We had best hope not, and strive to avoid them, for urgent reason.

The scope, efficiency and sustainability of this artifactual photosynthetic system seems likely to depend upon a complex web of interconnected resource, processing, and exchange systems implemented by humans, as distinguished from self sustaining (if we do not too much interfere) plants, ocean oxygen emitters, and generally the vast web of biological processes which we call Nature. The combinatorics of this system, globally employed, will be complex, subtle and demanding — of us.

In other words, whatever the array of geographically defined governance systems, if the systems for replacement of ‘fossil’ energy support for humans are to be realized, humans are going to have to construct and durably maintain large, and probably at best global, cooperation systems.

We may characterize these systems in economic, social, institutional, and other terms. But if we are going to get, for example, silicon, lithium, iron, copper, aluminum, etc. from where they are first found, and do all the intricate dances of transporting them, cunningly shaping them into microscopically toleranced formats, in large volume and at large scale, covering them with sand made into glass (or not), and have them harvest energy for decades, we have to have sophisticated coordinating mechanisms (including markets, and thus also including financial markets). And if humans seek a sustainable future of abundance of the sort many humans now enjoy, we can’t be blundering about periodically, or widely, destroying parts of such interconnected systems at will or impulse (read, if you wish, ISIL).

Lastly, for the moment, the imperative for hierarchical construction suggests that central coordinating functions, like those now embodied by the United Nations, will continue to evolve.

I have suggested that the above general directions, or tendencies, emerge from a consideration of order building, non equilibrium thermodynamic forces. However, I cannot assure my fellow humans that life on Earth, and our human part of it, must necessarily realize all the potentials one can envisage. Life, and order building in it, works in probabilistic increments. Over several billions of years, Earthlife has advanced as a whole in mass and complexity, it now appears, but also suffered some catastrophic setbacks in the process.

Whether our species of language and tool wielding ape will be able to achieve and maintain — over centuries — global integration at high levels of energy-fed activity, with current or better levels of individual welfare, is thus very much an open question. We have no good reason to think that an Abrahamic God, or other general Universal Governor, has decreed success for our hopeful projections of organizational potentials of human life on this Earth at this time. We are on our own, in an evolutionary adventure. In Star Wars terms, the force(s) may be with us, but guarantees are not on order.      

This leads to questions about what those concerned with ‘diplomacy’, or forms of facilitating international concert, may need to focus on in order to foster the needed, but far from guaranteed, international coherence. Modern Diplomacy, as a publication, is oriented to this topic.

In a prior post in another publication, I attempted an outline of some major themes, or focal points. In very brief summary, I suggested that we be aware of the central importance of energy flows and hierarchical ordering tendencies, mentioned here, that participants will be required to focus on arrangements which yield sustained mutual benefit to the participating parties (in current parlance, ‘win-win’ solutions), that there need to be monitoring of and controls on parasitism of the coordinated system by the coordinators, or ‘elites’ in the systems, that sound, objective knowledge systems of the sort developed in the sciences, and published through ‘free speech’ and ‘free presses’, be maintained, and that there is a need for continuity in systems (as massive breakdowns in an highly industrialized world may be very difficult, if not impossible, fully to repair).

Some of these suggestions relate to a need to prevent ossified, myopic national and international structures evolving, milked unproductively by national and international elites, stifling the growth potentials of the global human (and life) community.

I also pointed out that however much we wish completely to equalize welfare results for all participants globally, the prevalence of ‘power laws’ in the Universe counsels that we will never be able to do so. The operational possibility to be sought is that the various elements of the system be better off than if there were no system. (The philosopher John Rawls addressed this criterion in a way when he suggested that one approve or disapprove of a given system as if one did not know where one would fit in it.) A refinement of this concept is that an optimal system is one in which no one can be made more well off without making someone else less well off. But this logic does not, strictly, imply that in all circumstances complete equality applies as to all system participants.

On the global scene, both State and non-state actors seek to encourage successful and sustainable global integration. Some current organizations target selected international objectives from time to time, such as, but not limited to, Citizens for Global Solutions, and other organizations seek to create a global ‘parliament’ to parallel and inform the United Nations, promote a global ‘rule of law’ at the UN level and non governmental organization level, promote economic freedom, protect human rights, as by indexing State performance in human rights protection, and inhibit corruption in various polities by indexing State success in doing so. This is only a very limited sketch of such organizations. Please feel free to point up others in any comments on this essay.

The concepts I suggest here provide some support for the specifics of such efforts. Given my background as an attorney, I suggest that the ‘rule of law’ can be justified as an universal requirement by appeal to the basic nature of ordered processes — that is, that there be regularity and thus predictability in component processes — and the requirement that participating elements, such as ‘elites’, do not advantage themselves at the expense of the regularity and efficiency of the whole (the generic word for this is ‘corruption’). This basis goes deeper than others conventionally offered.  

I would also note that ‘human rights’ activities can be justified, perhaps somewhat undramatically and colorlessly, by the requirement that participating human elements in social groups, such as States, be accorded those nutrients and potentials for action which allow them to function with some equilibrium and effect.  

How well are such efforts succeeding? In the IA Forum piece, this author, perhaps parochially, attempted to rate the performance of his own native country, the United States, in meeting these criteria,, or requirements. Readers of this article are invited to correct this rating, and self-evaluate the conformance of their own polities by these criteria, if so inclined.

The effort reflected in this paper to to re-conceptualize some of traditional ‘statecraft’ has resulted in a limited and general set of suggested approaches. Broader efforts can be undertaken. Having had some connection with the US State Department and its education program for its foreign service officers, this author has proposed that such institutions might consider fostering research organizations (in a loose parallel to the US Defense Department’s DARPA) to probe analytically the theoretical and practical underpinnings of State construction and interaction.

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The African oil markets of China and the continuous daily needs for crude oil

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In an attempt to position themselves as international players in the global oil and gas market, China’s national oil companies are investing heavily in the exploration and production of oil and gas supplies in Africa. Africa is the second largest region in supplying oil and gas to China, after the Middle East, with over 25% of its total imported oil and gas.

There are three key players committing an almost equal share of the planned 15 billion US dollar spending to the development and production of the African oil sector: China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) and China National Offshore Oil (CNOOC).

The joint investment is expected to be the fourth largest one in the 2019-2023 period, after BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ENI SpA. This investment in African oil and gas is larger than the 10 billion dollars that the People’s Republic of China is investing in South America and is more than double the estimated investment in North America. Coa Chai, an expert at GlobalData, said: “About two thirds of spending is in Nigeria, Angola, Uganda and Mozambique. SINOPEC and CNOOC are well-established in Nigeria and Angola, while CNPC has a stake in the Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique”. He also added: “The increase in domestic energy demand has led China to diversify its imports of natural resources and China’s presence has increased significantly in almost 20 African countries”. One of China’s largest trading partners is the largest African oil producer, namely Nigeria. Nigeria currently pumps two million oil barrels a day and aims at producing three million barrels a day by the end of 2023. As China’s domestic oil production keeps on declining, experts predict that up to 80% of crude oil will be imported over the next 15 years.

There have been several remarkable investments by CNOOC, including the acquisition of a majority shareholding in an oil and gas exploration project by the Australian company FAR Ltd. The latter is drilling oil off the coast of Guinea-Bissau (West Africa). A FAR Ltd. spokesman said that CNOOC would obtain a 55.6% stake in the Sinapa and Esperança licenses of Swedish Svenska Petroleum Exploration AB. The Chinese oil producer may choose to become the operator of the joint venture after the completion of an upcoming offshore drilling campaign. CNOOC’s interest will be converted into a 50% share in case of successful discoveries. In Nigeria, CNOOC’s investment and involvement dates back to 2005 and the company is now the largest Chinese investment entity in Nigeria.

In 2006, CNOOC spent 2.3 billion dollars to acquire a 45% stake in the deepwater license of the Nigerian company OML 130, which is located in one of the most prolific oil and gas fields on the planet and contains the deposits of Akpo (discovered in 2000) and Aegina (discovered in 2003).

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has made public its support for Chinese investment in Nigeria, despite the fact that the region has had considerable problems with the populations involved. These problems include sporadic outbreaks of violence: some young people have taken actions, including theft, as a way to demand access to the country’s oil wealth. There has also been a questionable lack of transparency by NNPC, which apparently has not been able to demonstrate its billion dollar revenues in recent years.

While trying to meet the growing domestic demand for fuel, Aliko Dangote (No. 1957) – the richest African and Nigerian business tycoon – is building what will be Africa’s largest oil refinery in the former capital Lagos. The nine billion dollar megaproject is supposed to be completed by the end of 2020, thus doubling Nigeria’s refining capacity and potentially turning the country into an exporter of refined products.

As China’s largest oil and gas producer in terms of efficiency and power developed, CNPC has recently signed a contract with the government of Benin (West Africa) to build and operate a crude oil pipeline in the region. It will extend for 1,980 kilometres from the Agadem oil field in Niger to the Seme Terminal port in Benin. It is the largest investment in a transnational pipeline that CNPC has ever made in Africa and aims at further allowing the transport of crude oil from Niger to international markets, as well as promoting social and economic development in Benin. Besides these large companies that invest heavily in the oil and gas industry, China is also contributing to the growth of African infrastructure as a way to have great economic and social impact. A noteworthy entrepreneur is Wilson Wu, an electrical engineer, who now manages the free trade zone of the Ogun State, Nigeria: a public-private project in which the local government provides the land and Chinese companies the capital. Wu is said to be one of about one million Chinese citizens who have ventured into Africa over the last twenty years to seek their fortune.

The daily need for black gold

It should be noted that the People’s Republic of China has increased its oil share by 20% so as to take advantage of low oil prices. Indeed, according to an announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in a situation of declining demand and signs of increasing supply, the world’s largest oil buyer has increased the share for the use of crude oil abroad by non-State entities for 2021 by over 20% compared to 2020.

The increase in the import quota is equal to about 823,000 barrels per day, which is slightly lower than the amount pumped by Algeria that is an OPEC member. The companies that will use oil include privately-owned refineries, known as “teapots”, which in recent years have become increasingly important in the global oil market. These companies have been operating their facilities at a higher utilization rate than in 2019 for many months now, while their counterparts in the United States and Europe are lagging behind.

The increase shows that China’s oil purchases will be even larger at a time when global demand is facing new headwinds coming from further restrictions and blockages, while Covid-19 infections are spreading again in Europe and the United States.

Deteriorating demand prospects, together with a new supply in Libya, have weighed on reference prices, thus bringing West Texas Intermediate down to 6% on October 26, 2020. At 7:29 a.m. New York local time, the crude oil price was 2.4% lower, at $34.93 per barrel.

Behind the import push there is the ambitious expansion of China’s capacity. The country’s brand new mega-refinery, Zhejiang Petrochemical, started up one of its new 200,000 barrel/day crude oil distillation units on November 1. Another independent Chinese refinery, the Shenghong Petrochemical Group, is working on the construction of the country’s largest crude oil unit, which is expected to start up by the end of 2021.

Oil traders have been buying cargoes since the beginning of October 2020 and sending them to China, hoping to capitalize on an expected increase in demand at the end of the year when the independent refineries obtain the import licenses for 2021.

According to the Ministry statement, China has set the import quotas of crude oil for non-State companies at 243 million tons. According to the data collected by Bloomberg, this is equivalent to 4.9 million barrels per day. China has kept its annual quota unchanged at 202 million tons for this year, after an extraordinary increase of over one million oil barrels per day for 2019 compared to the previous year.

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Nord Stream 2: Who Benefits From the Navalny Affair?

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On October 7, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas issued a joint statement condemning the “Russian involvement and responsibility” in the Novichok poisoning of Alexey Navalny. In retaliation for the violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, France and Germany will share several proposals for sanctions with their European partners.

This statement occurs in the complex and unstable context of the Russian-European project, Nord Stream 2. Undermined by threats of U.S. sanctions, this infrastructure venture, surely the most ambitious in Europe, is currently at a standstill.

In Germany, various political figures are voicing their willingness to abandon the project, such as Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag and presidential candidate of the CDU. Another candidate, Friederich Merz, offered to immediately suspend the work for two years in reaction to Navalny’s poisoning. Despite these pressures, Angela Merkel can still rely on other supporters, such as the former chancellor, and chairman of the supervisory board of Nord Stream, Gerhard Schröder, or Nils Schmid, the vice-chairman of the SPD group in the Bundestag. As the German Chancellor begins her final year in office, the future of the project has never been so uncertain.

What is Nord Stream 2?

Nord Stream is a setup of gas pipelines that would allow Germany to be supplied with Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea. The first two pipelines were inaugurated in 2011 and are known under the name “Nord Stream 1.”

The Nord Stream 2 project for the construction of two other pipelines was launched in 2018 to double the quantity supplied by Nord Stream 1.

While benefitting from the unmitigated support of Moscow, Nord Stream 2 is a truly European project, driven by 4 countries: Russia (through Gazprom — 51% shares), Germany, (through Wintershall and PEG Infrastruktur — 15.5% each), and France and the Netherlands (9% each, via Engie and Gasunie). In addition, more than 100 companies from 12 European countries are involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2.

The pipeline is a response to Germany’s increasing demand for natural gas. The German energetic transition policy aims to reduce coal-burning and close nuclear reactors by 2022. Natural gas is necessary to achieve this transition and could become, according to an article from Reuters, the second pillar of the power supply after renewables.

Nord Stream 2 would allow Russia to transport gas in unmatched quantities to Europe. This competitive advantage, along with the low price of Russian gas, resulted in the United States’ strict opposition to the project. Indeed, since the advent of technical innovations allowing the extraction of shale gas and its export as liquefied natural gas (LNG), the USA has become one of the leading gas suppliers in the world. However, the cost of producing American gas is much higher than that of Russian gas. It is therefore easy to understand the American hostility towards the project. On December 21 2019, while Nord Stream 2 was 94% complete, the threat of an American antitrust law to sanction companies involved in the construction of the pipeline led Allseas, a Swiss company, to halt its work. In order to resume work, the consortium has to find another contractor, but other firms fear finding themselves under U.S. sanctions.

American pressure is greatly felt in Europe. Last August, a group of U.S. Republican senators vowed to impose “crushing legal and economic sanctions” on the Port of Sassnitz in Germany. The USA also slowed down the project by putting pressure on the countries concerned by the route, such as Denmark, which was the last one to issue authorization for the pipeline to cross its territorial waters. As one of the major U.S. allies in Europe, Poland’s antitrust watchdog slapped a record $7.6 billion fine on Gazprom, which represents 10% of the Russian company’s revenue. Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, also called on Germany to halt the Nord Stream 2 project, depicting it as a threat to the stability of Europe.

It is certain that the creation of the pipeline, by stimulating competition, would allow a more reasonable price on the European gas market. Critics of the project fear a dependence of European countries on Russian gas. This argument can easily be questioned. Indeed, Nord Stream 2 in no way prevents other suppliers such as Algeria, Norway, the USA or the Netherlands from supplying gas to European countries to diversify their supply. The central issue is that of a lower price, which, as in all markets, worries suppliers.

Opposition to Nord Stream 2 is not motivated by market share concerns only, as global energy supply flows have an inherent geopolitical dimension. The position of Ukraine epitomizes this intertwining of economic, energy security, and geopolitical aspects. Indeed, Nord Stream 2 would also allow Russia to bypass Ukraine, located on the main current route for European imports of Russian gas—and to deprive it of 2 billion dollars annually, roughly 3% of the country’s GDP. Because of its key strategic position, in the long term, it is in the interest of all countries to maintain a cordial relationship with the latter. This is why the question of its loss of income must be addressed, respected and treated seriously, both by Russia and by its Western partners.

Navalny Poisoning: a Tool in Information Warfare

The objective of this article is not to lift the veil on the unfortunate poisoning of Alexey Navalny but to understand how this affair is treated by the mass media and what impact it has on the Nord Stream 2 project.

On August 20, Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight between Siberia and Moscow and was placed in a coma for two weeks. Initially hospitalized in Omsk, he was transferred to Germany on August 22, where, following blood work, the Novichok nerve agent was found in his system.

Although the outcome of the Navalny case remains unknown, it is already fueling pro-Western and pro-Russian arguments. First of all, by the communication of Mr Navalny himself, who, via social networks like Twitter or Instagram, accuses the Kremlin of his poisoning.

In the overwhelming majority of Western media who use him as a figure to denounce the Russian system, Alexey Navalny is presented as the primary opponent of Vladimir Putin. The first analysis of the case published by Le Monde (one of the most popular French newspapers) states, “there is a simple truth: political violence is inherent to the Putin system.”

This thesis, depicting Russian power assassinating its opponents, comes from an old narrative framework and reminds us of a collective subconscious very present in Western minds. There are many examples, for example the Skripal Affair recently, but also in Russian history, such as the elimination of Paul I by Catherine II, the sponsored assassination of Trotsky, Alexander I, etc. It is essential to take into account this common bias moulded by the Cold War when analyzing Western media criticism of Russian power.

In the context described previously, the choice of Navalny’s relatives to transport him outside of Russia, to Germany, on purpose or not, necessarily gives a geopolitical and international dimension to his poisoning.

The outcome of this assassination attempt is, at present, murky and difficult to anticipate. Nevertheless, the criticism, analysis and denunciation of the presumed role of the Russian government in the poisoning have made it possible to question the place of Russia in the system of international relations.

The American newspaper Politico clearly highlights the dynamics in Western mass media. In an article dated September 16, Polish Minister of European Affairs Konrad Szymański took a stance on Nord Stream 2. The article headlined, “Navalny poisoning shows why Putin’s pipeline must be stopped.” As the article goes on, he denounces the Russian-European project, criticizes German energy consumption and defines the poisoning of Navalny as a “rude awakening” of the danger that Europe runs when dealing with Russia.

Several major European newspapers have used similar arguments, such as The Guardian, Le Figaro, Corriere della Sera or Deutsche Welle. Alexei Navalny is, well beyond his control, a communication tool in the information warfare. His case is instrumentalized and allows different stakeholders to assert their interests.

Nord Stream 2: Revealing Interests and Influences

In this geopolitical chessboard based on communication, some countries have obvious interests. This is the case for the United States, Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine. On the other hand, Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen supports the project. After talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he declared, “In this particular case, we are talking about diversifying gas supplies. This is a commercial issue.”

Most of the other stakeholders have more ambivalent positions. France, which contributes to the project through the company Engie (whose state has 23.6% of the shares) has a clear economic interest in the realization of the project. However, the country—in a declared approach of rapprochement with Russia since the election of President Macron—is also subject to American influence through its bilateral relations and structures such as NATO.

The American influence is even more visible on Denmark, despite the denial of the Danish government on the interference of foreign powers. The country first authorized the construction of the gas pipeline in its territorial waters on October 30, 2019, a few months after the election of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. More recently, in an interview with Danish agency Ritzau, the latter declared, “I’ve been against Nord Stream 2 from the start” and “I don’t think we should make ourselves dependent on Russian gas.”

We can also remember that in July 2020, Mike Pompeo, American Secretary of State, visited Denmark. During this visit, he publicly praised the country’s energy policy.

What About the Future?

Angela Merkel has on several occasions insisted on the absence of a link between the poisoning of Navalny and the construction of Nord Stream 2. While the project has stalled since last year, this speech shows the vital interest of Germany for privileged access to Russian gas. Germany’s energy transition depends on it. However, as we have seen, Europe is fundamentally divided on this project. As a true driving force of the European Union, Germany must condemn the poisoning of Navalny, treated in a German hospital, in order to consolidate its leadership.

France, the other great leader of the European Union, is following it in this process. This is why the joint statement of the two foreign ministers, Mr Le Drian and Mr Maas, presented in the introduction underlined the following concerning sanctions: “Proposals will target individuals deemed responsible for this crime and breach of international norms, based on their official function, as well as an entity involved in the Novichok program.” The absence of any mention of the Nord Stream project, while it is at the very centre of current geopolitical tensions, shows the strong will of the two countries to carry out the project.

Completion of the pipeline, which has already cost Russian and European partners more than 9.5 billion Euros, will greatly depend on the treatment of information in key countries, with Germany at the forefront. Time is playing for the United States while Angela Merkel, still faithful to the project, will be replaced within a few months. If the project is not completed or abandoned before the next German election, we can be sure that Nord Stream 2 will occupy a prominent place in the debates.

From our partner RIAC

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Energy Research Platform Takes Central Stage under Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship

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After the Ufa declaration in 2015, BRICS, an association of five major emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has made energy cooperation one of its priorities besides attaining an admirable significant influence on regional affairs and very active on the global stage.

That 7th summit held in July in the Russian provincial city of Ufa in Bashkortostan, under Russia’s initiative the BRICS adopted the key guideline for expanding among many other spheres, development of energy cooperation, bridging the scientific and technological gap, as well as finding solutions to the challenges in the energy sector among the members.

The Ufa Declaration (point 69) states “Recognizing the importance of monitoring global trends in the energy sector, including making forecasts regarding energy consumption, providing recommendations for the development of energy markets in order to ensure energy security and economic development, we call on our relevant agencies to consider the possibilities of energy cooperation within BRICS.”

“Taking into consideration the role of the energy sector in ensuring the sustainable economic development of the BRICS countries, we welcome balancing the interests of consumers, producers and transit countries of energy resources, creating the conditions for sustainable and predictable development of the energy markets,” it further stated.

Worth to remind here that it was Russia’s proposal to hold the first meeting of the BRICS Ministers of Energy during the fourth quarter of 2015. While reaffirming the importance and necessity of advancing international cooperation in the field of energy saving, energy efficiency and developing energy efficient technologies, the BRICS look forward to developing intra-BRICS cooperation in this area, as well as the establishment of the relevant platform.

In 2020, Russia holds the rotating chair of BRICS. BRICS has neither a secretariat nor a charter. The country that chairs BRICS organizes the group’s summit and coordinates its current activities. Russia has been holding series of conferences focusing on different directions. In mid-October, the BRICS Energy Ministers held their meeting and approved a roadmap for cooperation in energy sphere that runs until 2025.  Due to coronavirus pandemic, it was video conference chaired by Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak.

The influence of BRICS nations on the international arena is increasing due to the increasing economic power of the participating states, and it is imperative for them to coordinate their positions in energy cooperation, Minister Novak said during the meeting.

“Today, the BRICS nations represent nearly one fourth of global GDP and over a third of global consumption and production of energy. In this regard, it is very important to coordinate the positions of our nations where we have common interests and speak from a unified position in global platforms which concern themselves with matters of international energy cooperation,” he said.

“We have already begun to implement this idea in practice. Our nations have launched informal consultations on the sidelines of the G20 and on the sidelines of the World Energy Council. Beginning our work this year, we have collectively determined three key vectors of the energy dialogue. These are the support for the development of the national energy systems of BRICS nations, technological cooperation and facilitation of improved terms for investment in energy, contributing to the stability of energy markets and increasing the role of BRICS in the global energy dialogue,” Novak emphasized.

The roadmap adopted at the end of the meeting is the first comprehensive document that sets out agreed plans for the development of the energy dialogue between the five countries. The meeting also issued a communique confirming the intention to strengthen their strategic partnership in the energy sector and the area of energy security, and noting the important role of all types of energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The ministers affirmed that energy transition should correspond to national conditions and each country should determine the optimal policy without being compelled to adopt models that do not fit BRICS countries, according to the Russian ministry statement.

On October 15, Moscow hosted the first Annual Meeting of the BRICS Energy Research Platform, where analytical reports by the BRICS countries presented. That was followed by the largest youth energy event in BRICS. This year, delegations from all five countries comprised of representatives of Line Agencies responsible for the implementation of energy and youth policies as well as over 150 young scientists and experts from 40 leading universities and industrial organizations took part in the summit.

According to surveys conducted by the VTsIOM, Russian public opinion research centre, the number of families that have been taught to save energy has doubled over the past five years. That the BRICS countries are taking part in the #TogetherBrighter International Energy Saving Festival, as part of the BRICS Energy Week (October 16 – 20) was a landmark event of Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship.

Notably, the Energy Research Platform designed to encourage the research community’s involvement in the practical activities on drawing up energy resource plans. Two major events took place as part of the Energy Research Platform. The results submitted for consideration by the heads of state for effective industrial interaction and practical cooperation in developing and implementing new joint energy.

Based on national statistics and forecasts, leading BRICS experts have prepared the “BRICS Energy Report” – a review of the energy sectors in the five countries, and the “BRICS Energy Technology Report” – focuses on the priorities of technological development of the fuel and energy sectors in BRICS. The reports came from leading experts, representatives of major research institutes and energy companies from the BRICS countries as well as international energy organizations, such as OPEC, GECF, the World Energy Forum, the Clean Energy Ministerial and the World Energy Council.

In September, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held an online meeting of the BRICS Foreign Ministers Council in Moscow. That was second of such meetings this year under Russia’s chairmanship. The first one was dedicated exclusively to mobilizing efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.

Within an updated Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership to 2025, Russia has drawn proposals on developing a new mechanism for the five member’s interaction in securing sustainable economic development in the post-pandemic age.

The theme of the Meeting of the Leaders of BRICS countries is “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” which is planned for November 17 via videoconference, to be coordinated and moderated in Moscow. This year the five countries have continued close strategic partnership on all the three major pillars: peace and security, economy and finance, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. 

“Despite the current global situation due to the spread of the coronavirus infection, the activities under the Russian BRICS Chairmanship in 2020 are carried out in a consistent manner. Since January 2020, more than 60 events have been organized, including via videoconferencing. The BRICS Summit will provide impetus for further strengthening cooperation together with our partners and ensure well-being of BRICS countries,” – noted Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee to Prepare and Support Russia’s SCO Presidency in 2019 – 2020 and BRICS Chairmanship in 2020.

Since 2009, the BRICS nations have met annually at formal summits, with Brazil having hosted the most recent 11th BRICS Summit in November 2019. Russia is pushing forward significant issues of five-sided cooperation in the bloc’s three areas of strategic partnership: policy and security, economy and finance, and cultural and educational cooperation. The five BRICS countries together represent over 3.1 billion people, or about 41 percent of the world population.

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