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Putin’s energy: Which oil and gas projects might push geopolitical confrontation in Eurasia?

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The West does not like the energy policy of Russia. And Putin, as its  ideologist. “Aggressive,” “annexing,” “Russian-style” – labels like these are in spades. But the market should not really bother about “political colors and shades,” as profit always comes first. In theory, this is exactly how it should be. In reality, for decades we have been watching energy wars being waged, putting politics above the economy and hampering its development. Although, speaking objectively, Russia’s energy resources remain the best offer to go for on the European energy market. That the economic competitiveness of any country, including European, depends on the cost of energy is clear to everyone. The question is, how relevant resource wars really are in a rapidly changing world, when humanity is moving up to a new technological level?

Supporters of the ideas of solidarity on both sides of the Atlantic may object: “Geopolitics is more important than the economy; Moscow is an aggressor…” A few years ago, they would have been right, to some extent: Russia’s policies have not always been akin to those of the European Union, but Donald Trump, the current and—apparently—prospective president of the United States, has also adopted the policy of protectionism, starting trade wars with both Europe and China. While the confrontation with Beijing can be defined as geopolitical, it is not clear what kind of civilizational differences could have arisen within NATO. Turkey does not count, of course.

So, the economy turns out to be more important after all. While Washington is striving to enter a new technological cycle, Europe finds itself in the thrall to the US geopolitics.

Europe itself lacks unity: Germany, France and Italy are searching for ways to mend relations with Russia, at least in the economic field (there is progress in some areas, while projects stall in others). At the same time, Poland’s leadership say that liquefied gas from the United States will cost 20–30 percent less than Russian gas shipped through pipelines. Is that even possible, especially given Poland’s geographic proximity to Russia and the availability of well-developed energy infrastructures? It is only possible, if the United States subsidizes LNG supplies. That is another example where geopolitics prevails over the economy. But isn’t it a Pyrrhic victory? It depends on the will of the Old World nations. The United States is clearly not going to subsidize LNG supplies to Germany and France. Funds must flow—but in a totally different direction.

On the other hand, Moscow has never stopped pursuing an active energy policy. However, as the successor to the Soviet Union, Russia has inherited a gas transportation system oriented almost solely to Europe, one that by the early 2000s was not in line with the country’s new ambitions in a new geopolitical environment.  

Incessant gas wars with Ukraine repeatedly proved the simple fact that the infrastructure failed to provide the sufficient diversification level. Russia therefore opted for developing an extensive network of new gas transportation routes, such as Blue Stream, Nord Stream, Power of Siberia, and other projects. All of these built on one and the same idea that there should be no transit countries that could potentially interfere with Russian gas supplies. The idea was apparently generated by Vladimir Putin, since he became its main implementer and proponent.

This was the conclusion drawn by the authoritative American agency Bloomberg in late 2019. But in line with the simplified formula, so popular with the Americans, the emphasis was placed on the idea that the Kremlin was using its energy sources to pursue its “aggressive and expansionist policy.” Yet, there is a reason to believe that American media outlets use this rhetoric only in order to create a most convenient intellectual atmosphere in Europe to favor US energy companies.

Czech journalists offer a slightly more objective picture of Russian energy projects. Like the Americans, they assume that Russia uses energy cooperation as leverage to put pressure on its partners. But the Czechs can “understand” the logics of the Kremlin’s energy geopolitics and its desire to safeguard its supplies against belligerently anti-Russian Poland and Ukraine. Prague, which is far from being the world’s Russophile capital, believes that Moscow distinguishes between NATO and the EU in its political understanding. While considering the former to be a direct threat (suffice it to mention the Alliance’s officials’ statements), Russia sees the latter as a strategic partner for diverse cooperation. 

It should be noted that for quite a long time now, the US has been hampering, with various degrees of success, the implementation of Russian energy projects on the continent. Berlin has withstood the blow from Washington in the Baltics and hasn’t given up on Nord Stream 2: even the suspension of the 93 percent complete project in late 2019 due to the US sanctions did not sway the Germans’ political determination to see it through to the logical completion. There is, however, an opposite example: at the end of 2014, the pressure exerted on Bulgaria yielded tangible results. Sofia suddenly abandoned the South Stream project, which was a heavy blow for the Russians at the time, since several billion euros had already been invested in the development of infrastructures in the south of Russia, necessary for the gas pipeline. In 2015, Turkey expressed interest in the energy project, prompting the transformation of South Stream into Turkish Stream.

Thus, Putin is pursuing a rather clear political goal—to extend his influence to the European countries; therefore, the pipeline was bound to reach the Balkans one way or another. But, apart from politics, this is about economic diversification: while Brussels on behalf of the EU declares the intention to end its dependence on Russian gas, Moscow under the radar does basically the same thing, progressively increasing the number of its partners.

Besides, the old South Stream was very much wanted in Serbia, Italy, Hungary, and some other countries. Belgrade commenced the construction of its own part of the gas pipeline as far back as 2013. From the standpoint of geopolitics, Serbia’s concerns are not unfounded: having no access to the sea, the country finds itself heavily dependent on the goodwill—and the will is not always good—of their neighbors, specifically of Bulgaria. So far, the Serbs trust that Bulgaria intends to see the so-called Bulgarian, or Balkan, Stream project through. Different media gave the project to extend Turkish Stream different names, but the idea remained the same—the Russian pipeline is eventually supposed to pass through the territory of Bulgaria, which provokes strong reaction both in the local media and in politicians’ official statements. Come to think of it, it’s such a shame because this time the terms of transit are markedly worse than those previously proposed by Moscow.

In fact, Sofia’s foreign policy relies here on the worst principles of Byzantinism, inasmuch as Russia derived all the best features from the ancient empire, while the Bulgarian leadership the skills of dodging and double-dealing. This became especially obvious in January 2020, when Sofia in a single day signed agreements simultaneously with Russians and Americans—both concerning gas supplies. At the same time, Bulgaria publicly promised the United States to halve the shipments of Russian gas by the end of the current year, substituting them with fuel from the US and Azerbaijan. A very complicated scheme.

By the way, southern European gas routes arouse increased interest of hydrocarbons suppliers from the South Caspian region: Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, actively supported by the United States, are also working on the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline. Yet, analysts estimate that gas consumption in the European market is not going to rise in the foreseeable future as the region has started its transition to green technologies. This means that the decision to develop alternative routes is nothing but a politically motivated pressure.

While the European energy market is being redivided, one has to give credit to Vladimir Putin. What he does is only natural: despite the policy of sanctions and restrictions against Russia, pursued by the West, and the US’ foul play against its market competitors, in his policy Vladimir Putin continues to aim at establishing additional gas routes from Russia to Europe. This example vividly demonstrates the extraordinary ability of the Russian leader to offer his partners the best consensus solutions and thus reap both geopolitical and economic benefits. 

Certainly, the European market is a source of many billions of euros’ revenue for Russia, yet implementing new energy projects, Moscow also has a long-term agenda in mind. As a matter of fact, it was Russia’s president who strived, for many years, to build closer ties between Russia and Europe, with his idea of shaping a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok being central to Russia’s foreign policy before 2014.

Nevertheless it is still a part of the European civilization. We are entering a new era in which the West is no longer the world’s only pole, so what we need is the consolidation in the face of rapidly developing South-East Asian countries. As far as Russia is concerned, so long as Vladimir Putin is its leader, this “window of opportunity” remains open, although not as wide open as it was before 2014. If the opponents of cooperation with Europe prevail in the Russian authorities, the only thing left to us will be to feel how wrong the policy of discrimination against Russia has been. And all the bitterness of disappointment. Yet time will be foolishly and irreversibly lost.

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Russian Energy Week: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons?

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In an official message to mark the opening of the Russian Energy Week international forum on 13-15 October in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that there are numerous issues on the agenda related to current trends in the global energy market, including improvements to industry infrastructure and the introduction of modern digital technologies into its operation.

“The efficiency of energy production and consumption is the most important factor in the growth of national economies and has a significant impact on people’s quality of life. Many countries have already adopted policies to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies,” he wrote in the message to guest and participants.

“The forum business programme is therefore set to look in detail at the possibility of developing green energy based on renewable sources and the transition to new, more environmentally friendly fuels. I am confident that the events of the Russian Energy Week will allow you to learn more about the achievements of the country’s fuel and energy sector, and that your initiatives will be put into practice,” Putin said.

Leaders of foreign states have also sent greetings to the participants and guests. For instance, President of the Republic of Angola João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Vice Premier of the State Council of China Han Zheng.

In their greetings, it generally noted the importance of the topics to be discussed at the forum as well as the need to build an international dialogue and consolidate efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals, including as regards climate change.

The programme covers a wide range of issues of transformation and development in the global energy market. In the context of energy transition, the issues of energy development are inextricably linked with the introduction of new technologies, and the transformation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Climate protection is a task that cannot be solved by one country; it is a global goal, which can be achieved through building dialogue and cooperation between countries.

The participants in the discussion will answer the question: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons? In addition, during the panel session, the participants will discuss whether oil, gas and coal are really losing ground in the global energy sector; whether the infrastructure will have time to readjust for new energy sources; how long will there be enough hydrocarbons from the field projects that are being implemented; and whether an energy transition using fossil fuels is possible.

The international climate agenda is forcing many countries to reform their carbon-based energy systems. For Russia, which holds a leading position in the global hydrocarbon markets, the transition to development with low greenhouse gas emissions presents a serious challenge, but at the same time it opens up new opportunities for economic growth based on renewable energy, hydrogen technologies, advanced processing of raw materials and implementing green projects.

The Climate Agenda included sessions dedicated to the operation of the Russian fuel and energy sector in the context of energy transition, the impact of the European green pivot on the cooperation between Russia and Europe, as well as the session titled ‘The Future of Coal in a World Shaped by the Climate Agenda: The End, or a New Beginning?’

Sessions of the ‘New Scenarios for the Economy and the Market’ track are dedicated to the global challenges and opportunities of the electric power industry; the impact of ESG on the Russian fuel and energy sector; the potential for the renewable energy sources; and other issues of the future of energy.

The Russian Energy Agency under the Ministry of Energy brings together experts from key international analytical organizations to discuss the future of world energy during the session titled International Energy Organization Dialogue: Predicting the Development of Energy and Global Markets.

The Human Resource Potential of the Fuel and Energy Sector, participating experts will discuss the prospects for developing the professional qualification system, and a session titled Bringing the Woman’s Dimension to the Fuel and Energy Sector. Optimizing regulation in the energy sector and organizing the certification and exchange of carbon credits in Russia are the basis of the Regulatory Advances in Energy. 

Anton Kobyakov, Advisor to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the Russian Energy Week 2021 Organizing Committee, said “the level of various formats of international participation testifies to the importance of the agenda and Russia’s significant role in the global energy sector. We are a reliable strategic partner that advocates for building international cooperation based on the principles of transparency and openness. With the period of major changes in the industry, it is particularly important to engage in a dialogue and work together to achieve both national and global goals.”

The forum, organized by the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Energy, and the Moscow Government, brought together many local and foreign energy and energy-related enterprises. The speakers attending included  Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO Darren Woods, Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG Chairman of the Board Ola Kallenius, BP CEO Bernard Looney, and TotalEnergies Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanné.

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World Energy Outlook 2021 shows a new energy economy is emerging

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A new energy economy is emerging around the world as solar, wind, electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies flourish. But as the pivotal moment of COP26 approaches, the IEA’s new World Energy Outlook makes it clear that this clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero, highlighting the need for an unmistakeable signal of ambition and action from governments in Glasgow.

At a time when policy makers are contending with the impacts of both climate change and volatile energy markets, the World Energy Outlook 2021 (WEO-2021) is designed as a handbook for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which offers a critical opportunity to accelerate climate action and the clean energy transition. The new analysis – which the IEA is making available for free online – delivers stark warnings about the direction in which today’s policy settings are taking the world. But it also provides clear-headed analysis of how to move in a well-managed way towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

The WEO-2021, the IEA’s annual flagship publication, shows that even as deployments of solar and wind go from strength to strength, the world’s consumption of coal is growing strongly this year, pushing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions towards their second largest annual increase in history.

“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “Governments need to resolve this at COP26 by giving a clear and unmistakeable signal that they are committed to rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future. The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense.”

The WEO-2021 spells out clearly what is at stake: what the pledges to reduce emissions made by governments so far mean for the energy sector and the climate. And it sets out what needs to be done to move beyond these announced pledges towards a trajectory that would reach net zero emissions globally by mid-century – the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario from the landmark IEA report published in May, which is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.

As well as the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the WEO-2021 explores two other scenarios to gain insights into how the global energy sector may develop over the next three decades – and what the implications would be. The Stated Policies Scenario represents a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have actually put in place to date, as well as specific policy initiatives that are under development. In this scenario, almost all of the net growth in energy demand through 2050 is met by low emissions sources, but that leaves annual emissions still around today’s levels. As a result, global average temperatures are still rising when they hit 2.6 °C above pre-industrial levels in 2100.

The Announced Pledges Scenario maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full. In this scenario, demand for fossil fuels peaks by 2025, and global CO2 emissions fall by 40% by 2050. All sectors see a decline, with the electricity sector delivering by far the largest. The global average temperature rise in 2100 is held to around 2.1 °C.

For the first time in a WEO, oil demand goes into eventual decline in all the scenarios examined, although the timing and speed of the drop vary widely. If all today’s announced climate pledges are met, the world would still be consuming 75 million oil barrels per day by 2050 – down from around 100 million today – but that plummets to 25 million in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. Natural gas demand increases in all scenarios over the next five years, but there are sharp divergences after this.

After decades of growth, the prospects for coal power go downhill in the Announced Pledges Scenario – a decline that could be accelerated further by China’s recent announcement of an end to its support for building coal plants abroad. That move may result in the cancellation of planned projects that would save some 20 billion tonnes in cumulative CO2 emissions through 2050 – an amount similar to the total emissions savings from the European Union reaching net zero by 2050.

The differences between the outcomes in the Announced Pledges Scenario and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net zero by mid-century.

“Today’s climate pledges would result in only 20% of the emissions reductions by 2030 that are necessary to put the world on a path towards net zero by 2050,” Dr Birol said. “Reaching that path requires investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to more than triple over the next decade. Some 70% of that additional spending needs to happen in emerging and developing economies, where financing is scarce and capital remains up to seven times more expensive than in advanced economies.”

Insufficient investment is contributing to uncertainty over the future. Spending on oil and natural gas has been depressed by price collapses in 2014-15 and again in 2020. As a result, it is geared towards a world of stagnant or even falling demand. At the same time, spending on clean energy transitions is far below what would be required to meet future needs in a sustainable way.

“There is a looming risk of more turbulence for global energy markets,” Dr Birol said. “We are not investing enough to meet future energy needs, and the uncertainties are setting the stage for a volatile period ahead. The way to address this mismatch is clear – a major boost in clean energy investment, across all technologies and all markets. But this needs to happen quickly.”

The report stresses that the extra investment to reach net zero by 2050 is less burdensome than it might appear. More than 40% of the required emissions reductions would come from measures that pay for themselves, such as improving efficiency, limiting gas leakage, or installing wind or solar in places where they are now the most competitive electricity generation technologies.

These investments also create huge economic opportunities. Successfully pursuing net zero would create a market for wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells of well over USD 1 trillion a year by 2050, comparable in size to the current oil market. Even in a much more electrified energy system, major opportunities remain for fuel suppliers to produce and deliver low-carbon gases. Just in the Announced Pledges Scenario, an additional 13 million workers would be employed in clean energy and related sectors by 2030, while that number doubles in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

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Russian Energy Arrogance or American Cold War Psychology?

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Lately, there has been much garment-rending across Western media and governmental sources, all criticizing Russia’s so-called hostility toward the European Union on the issue of gas supplies this coming winter. The core essence of the criticism is the accusation that the Russian Federation is playing geopolitical games with the European Union, threatening it with a freeze-out this winter if it does not play ball on accepting the massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal. A cursory glance across many important media sources in the West reveals just how quickly the “analyses” seem eager to ratchet up the emotionality:

  • The Washington Examiner reported that “winter is coming” for Europe and Biden because of Putin.
  • The National Interest derisively called “giving Europe a pass” on ratifying Nord Stream 2 as an outright victory for Putin.
  • Politico blatantly asked “will Putin attack?” when discussing the issue of supplying gas to Europe.
  • The New York Times called Nord Stream 2 a “security threat” and that Biden must stop Putin from achieving this victory.
  • Newsweek reported how many governmental officials in Washington are outright lamenting this issue as a “present to Putin” and an example of the White House enabling Putin while undermining Europe.

Very disconcerting language indeed, emblematic of the continued insistence in the West that it is de facto in a New Cold War with Russia. To all of this Putin has largely given a presumptive and decidedly dismissive geopolitical yawn. But underneath the typical cool bravado that Putin has always exhibited in the face of direct Western criticism, there must also be an obvious air of dissatisfaction and outright anger at what Russia sees as a consistent effort by Washington to portray it in the worst possible light.

First, Russia is quick to explain that recent soaring energy prices are not the result of some dastardly political scheme engineered inside the Kremlin, but instead connected to recovering energy demands as the world emerges from the COVID pandemic, particularly from Asia. To ignore this global economic fact in order to focus on a fabricated political design is the first hint to Russians that they are being held to a geopolitical double-standard that others do not face.

Second, powerful Washington opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, is based not so much on any flaw in the pipeline or doubt that it would ease the energy needs of Europe. Rather, it is recognition that the pipeline makes Russia stronger, as it will allow it to directly supply gas to Europe, as opposed to its current main pipelines that run through Ukraine first. As everyone knows, the Russia-Ukraine relationship continues to be incredibly tense and unfriendly. Thus, seeking a way to work around that problem while still supplying a valuable natural asset is, in economic-geopolitical-security terms, completely rational and logical for Russia. Therefore, Washington’s opposition is seen by Putin for what it truly is: strategizing against Russia growing stronger, more prosperous, and influential.

Third, Russia, if anything, is always aware of all perceived slights when it comes to its position on the global stage. Some might even say it has a tendency to “over-perceive” such slights historically. In this particular case, the slights are quite obvious when Russian analysts look at how the rest of the major players in the global economy are treated when they engage in similar strategy. The fluctuations in the oil market, overall decided by OPEC but heavily influenced individually by Saudi Arabia, have over the decades rarely been purely altruistic. When it has been apparent that Saudi Arabia is taking advantage of its leveraged position, maximizing its own individual benefits to the detriment of all the other players, rarely has the United States gone straight for the geopolitical jugular, questioning whether or not Saudi Arabia is preparing for war by another name or is intending to “starve” the West of its innate energy needs. The same can be said for China, with all of its various machinations over the past two decades in terms of the currency, labor, real estate, and manufacturing markets. While criticism has always existed against both of these countries, those same criticisms have also recognized that the respective Saudi and Chinese maneuvers are understandable from objective geopolitical, economic, and security perspectives. It is not surprising, therefore, that Russia is not just aware of these parallel realities but also notices how unfavorably it is treated in comparison for the same behavior. Especially given that these countries, while not exactly the best-of-friends with the United States, are still given so-called passes deemed “dangerous” if given to Russia.

Taken together, these facts are what always drive Russians crazy and push Putin into his “dismissive arrogance” posture that he often assumes when irritated by members of the Western media. Luckily for Russian specialists, this is one of the most entertaining aspects of Putin’s personality, as this arrogance is one of the few times that his true opinions and feelings are on display for reporters. But underneath the arrogance is arguably an endemic frustration forming the base of it all. What the Kremlin is most tired of is having to answer questions that clearly (though obliviously when it comes to the reporters asking) imply that Russia is in the wrong if it pursues policies that maximize its economic strength, increase its geopolitical prestige and leverage, and/or does not improve its relationship with the United States. Putin often remarks about how his decision-making is based solely on what is good for Russia and best for Russians. These comments are usually dismissed by the West as platitudes. But he means them. The problem is not that he takes such objectives seriously. The problem is that too many in the West fail to envision a reality where Russia does not accept being put into a tightly controlled box built on what the United States considers appropriate. And this latter point is not affirmation of a New Cold War with the West; it is confirmation that the West is still stuck in the psychology of the old one.

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