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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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Is it finally time for hydrogen?

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After decades of debates with a high level of ‘ideological pollution’, also partly thanks to the paradoxical impetus provided by the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of promoting an economic renaissance – strongly characterised not only by technological innovation but also by a strong, concrete and visible commitment to environmental protection – has finally been placed at the top of the list of government priorities for all world’s most industrialised countries.

At the last G20 Summit on sustainable development, Europe, China and the United States agreed to undertake joint and coordinated efforts to achieve the goal of gradually “decarbonising” the planet by committing themselves to cutting the use of fossil fuels in energy production in favour of renewable energy from air, sun and sea.

The “Green Deal”, which the European Union has been planning on paper for years, is about to become a reality since it was included in the “recovery plan”, the huge financial commitment destined to help the European countries’ economies to emerge from the quicksand of the pandemic in the coming years.

As many as 47 billion euros are earmarked for Italy to be spent on research and exploitation of non-polluting energy sources that will free us from the use of fossil fuels and enable us to grow without harming the ecosystem and the climate balance.

After decades of extraordinary economic growth, which has nevertheless cost a very high price in terms of environmental pollution, China has decided to further develop the sustainable growth initiatives undertaken as part of the 13th five-year plan – concrete initiatives that have enabled it to cut the amount of CO2released into the atmosphere by 12%, with the 14th five-year plan for 2020/2025, an ambitious but achievable project to create an ‘ecological civilisation’.

In this regard, during a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) dedicated to the “collective study on the theme of the achievement of ecological civilisation”, President Xi Jinping stated bluntly: “we must consider the reduction of carbon emissions as the strategic direction of the 14th Five-Year Plan to promote the reduction of pollution and carbon emissions and to pursue the transformation of the green economic and social development model to achieve the goal of qualitative improvement of the ecological environment”.

The fact that these are not mere formulas and words of a clever politician who has sensed and caught wind of “modernity” is demonstrated by the real and incisive commitment that the Chinese leadership has made in the field of renewable energy, thanks to the personal involvement of the young and dynamic Minister of Energy Resources, Lu Hao, who wants to make Shenzhen a pilot centre for research and development in the production of energy from the sea through the National Ocean Technology Centre.

It was precisely in Shenzhen that the Marine Economy Expo was held earlier this year, showcasing advances in wave energy research and production and addressing the use of hydrogen as a potential source of clean energy.

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe.

However, it is not available in nature in its pure gaseous form, but “lives” only when bound with other elements, such as oxygen in water (two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, H2O) and methane (one carbon and four hydrogen atoms, CH4).

What can hydrogen be useful for once it is detached from its companion elements in water and gas?

The answer is simple: it is a light gas, lighter than air, with no toxic characteristics, which, if properly extracted and stored, can provide energy for heating houses, propelling cars, trains, planes and all other means of transport, and can potentially replace all current non-renewable energy sources, such as coal or oil, to provide clean energy for all industrial production processes.

However, separating hydrogen from oxygen and carbon is not a simple, low-cost process: firstly, its extraction from methane, so as to obtain the so-called “grey hydrogen”, requires huge amounts of traditional energy and is therefore a source of collateral greenhouse gases and pollution.

In order to produce “clean” hydrogen, instead, the so-called “green hydrogen” must be extracted from water by separating it from oxygen using electrolysis. However, electrolysis has the disadvantage that it requires large amounts of electricity to work- hence, in order to produce clean energy from hydrogen, we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having to consume large amounts of electricity at high cost and with equally high CO2 emissions.

This paradox has held back the production of industrial hydrogen, until the idea of creating a “green” hydrogen production cycle using renewable energies such as wind, solar or marine energy has begun to emerge.

With the use of this particular process, a virtuous and very simple cycle is created: hydrogen is extracted from sea water and the energy produced by wave motion and sea currents is used to produce the energy needed for water electrolysis.

Hydrogen is a practically inexhaustible source of renewable energy, and its production on an industrial scale could solve the “dialectic” between development and the environment once and for all.

In the summer of last year, the European Union had already planned an initial implementation of the “Green Deal” with a 470 billion euro investment project called the “hydrogen energy strategy”, which aims to create the conditions to enable all European partners to produce “green” hydrogen through electrolysis in view of achieving – by the end of 2024 – the annual production of at least one million tonnes of hydrogen in the gaseous state, with the widespread use of electrolysis equipment with a single power of 100 megawatts.

As mentioned above, the “recovery plan” for Italy envisages an allocation of 47 billion euros for research and development in renewable energies and particularly in the field of “green” energy production, as recently stated by the Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani.

Other European countries are also betting on the future of hydrogen.

Spain has already earmarked 1.5 billion euros from its national budget for national hydrogen production over the next two years, while Portugal wants to invest a large part of the 186 billion euros allocated to it by the “recovery plan” in projects dedicated to the production of low-cost “green” hydrogen.

Italy is at the forefront of research into marine energy production equipment.

The Polytechnic University of Turin – with the support of ENI, CDP, Fincantieri and Terna – has developed a cutting-edge technology for producing energy from wave motion.

This is the Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter (ISWEC), a machine housed inside a 15-metre-long hull which – thanks to a system of gyroscopes and sensors – is able to produce 250 megawatts of “green” energy a year, occupying a marine area of just 150 square metres, without any negative impact on the ecosystem.

Italy can rightly claim to be at the forefront of research and production of energy from sea wave motion, and can therefore rightly take the lead of those who plan to produce “green” hydrogen using the energy generated by wave motion for the energy needed for electrolysis: a virtuous cycle that is potentially the protagonist of a future industrial revolution.

This explains the interest and attention paid by China’s Ministry of Energy Resources and its Minister, Lu Hao, to Italy and to some of its companies.

Minister Lu Hao has turned the city of Shenzhen into what is defined as a “global ocean central city”, which – also thanks to a joint venture, promoted by the International World Group, between Italy’s Eldor and China’s National Ocean Technology Centre -is set to become the world’s pilot centre for the production of clean energy from sea waves.

In a not too distant future, with the smart support of all Italian institutions – starting with the Ministry for Ecological Transition – together with other European partners and probably with the support, albeit suspicious, of the United States led by President Biden -Italy and China will be able to launch and develop the revolution of the “blue economy”, the economy that starts from the sea, the latest fashion in terms of smart, clean and sustainable energy production.

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Nord Stream 2: To Gain or to Refrain? Why Germany Refuses to Bend under Sanctions Pressure

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The chances of the sanctions war around Nord Stream 2 to rage on after the construction of the pipeline is finally over seem to be high. That said, we have to admit, with regret or with joy, that it will be completed, and for the following reasons:

Germany, like any other European country, has set itself the task of abandoning coal and nuclear energy within the next few decades. In reality, however, there is no alternative to coal and nuclear energy. Simultaneously forsaking gasoline and diesel cars, which is something Europe dreams about, will inevitably increase the EU’s demand for electricity. However, green energy is unlikely to satisfy Europe’s energy needs any time soon. Hopes for cheap thermonuclear energy are unlikely to come true until 2050 at best. Therefore, in the coming decades, natural gas, Russian and other, will obviously remain the most convenient and cheapest fuel. At the same time, regardless of where the pipelines run, Russian natural gas will account for a significant share of the European and world markets. This is not politics – just a simple economic reality.

Despite the attributed environmental benefits of Nord Stream 2 and the Russian natural gas, the positive impact of replacing coal with natural gas remains largely unclear as it depends on the volume of methane leaking from the processes of gas extraction and transportation. Nonetheless, Nord Stream 2 presents itself as an attractive alternative for the EU as it would help decrease gas prices because Russia will be able to supply the EU with higher amounts of gas, thus, decreasing demand for expensive imported liquified natural gas (LNG).

Nord Stream 2, although a privately-financed commercial project, has political implications. Politics and economics are too closely intertwined, and in the short term at that. The abandonment of Nord Stream 2 will hardly weaken Russia and force the Kremlin to introduce democratic reforms. This will only result in Europe losing a good opportunity to effectively ensure its energy independence, as well as that of its Baltic and Eastern European allies, many of whom, unable to fully integrate themselves into European energy systems, continue to buy electricity from Russia.

At the same time, Nord Stream 2 will help make Germany a guarantor of the EU’s energy security. More and more people now feel that the sanctions against the Russian-German project are essentially meant to undermine Germany’s growing influence. However, even this abnormally cold winter has shown that political problems and competition for influence in the EU are taking a back seat to energy security issues. The disruption in LNG supplies from the United States has only underscored Europe’s need for the Nord Stream. Besides, when completed and controlled by Germany, Nord Stream 2 could be used as a means of pressure against Russia and Russian supplies which is exactly what Brussels and Washington want.

Yet, the United States continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 project and, thus, trans-Atlantic tensions between Germany and the United States are on the rise. Like the Obama and Trump Administrations which opposed Nord Stream 2 and introduced tangible steps to halt its progress, the Biden Administration is too faced with a lot of pressure by American lobbyists and members of the Congress in order to push back and halt Nord Stream 2 progress and efforts. However, until this very day, US President Biden and his administration did not sanction the project, which could be understood in lights of Biden’s struggling efforts to repair relations with Germany after the Trump Administration’s accusations towards and troop withdrawals from Germany. Thus, although the current administration under Biden still opposes Nord Stream 2, it is reluctant to impose any sanctions because its priorities lie with repairing US-German ties in the Post-Trump era.

The United States is not the only opposing International player to Nord Stream 2, but even many Eastern European countries, including Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland are against the pipeline project in fear of geo-economic insecurity. For instance, it is believed that Nord Stream 2 would cost Ukraine approximately $2 to $3 billion in losses as the transit volumes shift from Ukraine to Nord Stream 2. Another argument put forth by European opposition to Nord Stream 2 is that it would undermine the EU’s energy solidarity or even a potential “Energy Union”; however, Germany and supporters of Nord Stream 2 often highlight that the imported Russian gas would not only benefit Germany, but rather all of Europe. The pipeline is expected upon completion to be able to transport 55 billion cubic meters of Russian Natural Gas to Germany and other clients in Europe!

Despite oppositions, threats of sanctioning and the earlier construction halt in December 2019, it seems that the Gazprom-Pipeline Nord Stream 2 will be completed and will go online soon as the Biden Administration continues to refrain from imposing sanctions.

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How Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea

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image source: azertag.az

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, crude oil and natural gas have been playing a key role in the geopolitics of the Caspian region. Hydrocarbon revenues became an important source of economic growth for the Caspian Basin countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Shortly after gaining independence in the early 1990s, the Caspian states implemented energy policies that protect their national interests. According to the BP 2020Statistical Review of World Energy total proved energy reserves of the Caspian states are: Kazakhstan has30.00 billion barrels of oil and 2.7 trillion cubic meters of gas, Azerbaijan 7.00billion barrels of oil and 2.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, and Turkmenistan 0.6billion barrels of oil and 19.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Such rich hydrocodone reserves allowed the Caspian states to contribute significantly to the global energy markets. Today, the Caspian states are supplying oil and natural gas to various energy markets, and they are interested in increasing export volume and diversification of export routes. In comparison with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which supply energy sources mainly to China and Russia, Azerbaijan established a backbone to export energy sources to Europe and Transatlantic space. As the Caspian Sea is landlocked, and its hydrocarbon resources located at a great distance from the world’s major energy consumers, building up energy infrastructure was very important to export oil and gas.

To this end, Azerbaijan created the milestone for delivery of the first Caspian oil and natural gas by implementing mega energy projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).Now, one can say that both energy projects resulted from successful energy policy implemented by Azerbaijan. Despite the COVID-19 recession, the supply of the Azerbaijani oil to the world energy markets continued. In general, the BTC pipeline carries mainly Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) crude oil and Shah Deniz condensate from Azerbaijan. Also, other volumes of crude oil and condensate continue to be transported via BTC, including volumes from Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. As it is clear, the BTC pipeline linked directly the Caspian oil resources to the Western energy markets. The BTC pipeline exported over 27.8 million tons of crude oil loaded on 278 tankers at Ceyhan terminal in 2020. The European and the Asian countries became the major buyers of the Azerbaijani oil, and Italy (26.2%) and China (14%) became two major oil importers from Azerbaijan.

The successful completion of the SGC also strengthened Azerbaijani position in the Caspian region. The first Caspian natural gas to the European energy markets has been already supplied via Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in December 2020, which is the European segment of the SGC. According to TAP AG consortium,a total of one billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas from Azerbaijan has now entered Europe via the Greek interconnection point of Kipoi, where TAP connects to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The TAP project contributes significantly to diversification of supply sources and routes in Europe.

Another historical event that affected the Caspian region was the rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The MoU on joint exploration of “Dostluk/Friendship” (previously called Kapaz in Azerbaijani and Sardar in Turkmen) offshore field between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan was an important event that will cause positive changes in the energy map of the Caspian Sea.

The Assembly of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan Parliament have already approved the agreed Memorandumon joint exploration, development, and deployment of hydrocarbon resources at the “Dostluq” field. It should be noted that for the first time two Caspian states agreed to cooperate in the energy sector, which opens a window for the future Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. Such cooperation and the future transit of Turkmen oil and gas via the existing energy infrastructure of Azerbaijan will be a milestone for trans-regional cooperation.

The supply of the Caspian and Central Asian natural gas to European energy markets was always attractive. Therefore, the TCP is a strategic energy project for the US and EU. After the signing of the Caspian Convention, the EU officials resumed talks with Turkmenistan regarding the TCP. The May 2019 visit of the Turkmen delegation headed by the Advisor of the President of Turkmenistan on oil and gas issues was aimed at holding technical consultations between Turkmenistan and the EU. Turkmen delegation met with the representatives of the General Directorate on Energy of the European Commission and with the representatives of “British Petroleum,” “Shell” and “Total” companies. TCP is a project which supports diversification of gas sources and routes for the EU, and the gas pipeline to the EU from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey, known as the combination of “Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline” (TCP), “South-Caucasus Pipeline Future Expansion” (SCPFX) became the “Project of Common Interest” for the EU.

Conclusively, Azerbaijan is a key energy player in the region. Mega energy projects of the country play an important role to deliver Caspian oil and gas to global energy markets. However, the Second Karabakh War has revealed the importance of peace and security in the region. The BTC pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor linking directly the Caspian energy to Western energy markets were under Armenian constant threat. As noted by Hikmat Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, “Armenia fired cluster rocket to BTC pipeline in Yevlak region”. Fortunately, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan protected its strategic infrastructure, and there was no energy disruption. But attacks on critical energy infrastructure revealed that instability in the region would cause damages to the interests of many states.

In the end, Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea by completing mega energy projects, as well as creating the milestone for energy cooperation in the Caspian region. After Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, the country supports full regional economic integration by opening all transport and communication links. Now, the importance of the Caspian region became much more important, and Azerbaijan supports the idea of the exportation of natural gas from Turkmenistan and the Mediterranean via SGC. Such cooperation will further increase the geostrategic importance of the SGC, as well as Azerbaijan’s role as a transit country.

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