Biden must support alternative energy sources in Europe
As Russia cuts off gas supplies, already gas-strapped governments across Europe are scrambling to limit their citizens’ energy consumption. Amid the continental summer heatwave, sweltering Europeans had to limit their use of air conditioning. In a few weeks, when colder weather increases demand again, the headlines will report a whole new set of problems. The repercussions of this growing need for increased supplies of oil and gas will be felt around the world. This is not a European energy crisis, it is the global crisis.
There are many factors and actions over the years that have brought us to this point. One is paramount: the decisions made in Germany and other European states more than a decade ago to rely disproportionately on a fundamentally unreliable energy partner: Russia. Poland, the Baltics and others have seen and warned of the dangers, but Russian assurances have influenced too many others.
There is a way out of this mess, but only one: find alternative – and above all reliable – sources.
The United States has done its part, including releasing large amounts of its own strategic oil reserves. President Biden and others have led a diplomatic offensive, engaging major energy producers in the Middle East and elsewhere to try to boost production immediately while simultaneously acting to achieve a low-carbon future that we we urgently need. But it cannot be up to the United States alone to shoulder the burden. This crisis is a failure of European energy policy. It’s up to them now to do more about their own supply chain diplomacy.
Encouragingly, the EU and its individual members have finally started to put long-term plans in place. The European Union is setting up a new program for the purchase of natural gas. EU officials met their counterparts in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves, to discuss reopening the moribund Trans-Niger pipeline to generate more exports to the ‘Europe. A trilateral gas agreement was signed by the EU, Israel and Egypt; similar agreements followed between Germany and Qatar, and Italy and Algeria. In the meantime, Germany is taking steps to accelerate the establishment of its own liquefied natural gas import infrastructure.
An EU deal to double gas imports from a country that few Westerners could possibly mark on a map is particularly promising: Azerbaijan. Sandwiched between Russia, Iran and Turkey, this post-Soviet state in the South Caucasus offers vast reserves of Caspian oil and gas, as well as untapped wind and green hydrogen potential. Its geographical location makes it the strategic key to the only route linking Europe to East and South Asia, the so-called “Middle Corridor”, which avoids crossing Russian or Iranian territory.
What sets Azerbaijan apart are two crucial advantages it brings as an energy partner. First, it has pipelines that are direct to the EU and bypass Russia. Additionally, these pipelines could be expanded to handle more oil and gas from Central Asia. And they could be modified along the way to carry clean hydrogen as that resource comes online. Second, shortly after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan developed its energy sector in partnership with Western oil majors. In three decades he has proven to be a reliable partner for the West.
However, their main advantages are to some extent offset by short-term limits on Azerbaijan’s immediate ability to increase its exports to the EU. Pipelines have limited capacity; upgrading and strengthening this capacity cannot happen overnight. New fields need time to go live. So while the deal calls for a doubling of gas exports over a five-year period, Azerbaijan will be part – an essential part, of course – but part of the long-term sustainable solution to the current crisis.
Finally, Europe thinks in the long term and puts in place the necessary solution. Yes, it should have taken some steps ten years ago, but the new EU-Azerbaijan Energy Memorandum of Understanding is a welcome step forward. However, with each new solution, new challenges arise. The world must be prepared that other regional powers, notably Russia and Iran, see the EU-Azerbaijan partnership as a threat to their own ambitions. Whether through threats, lies or violence, they will try to derail this agreement. This cannot be allowed to happen, and here the United States has its most important role to play.
The United States has already done a lot of work to help meet Europe’s energy needs and the growing global energy crisis. But there is one more thing we can and must do: support the Azerbaijan deal with all the technical know-how and diplomatic support at our disposal. It is in our vital strategic interest to do so – not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because global economic realities mean that Americans are equally hurt by the whims of the Kremlin or Tehran. Europe is finally acting wiser to tackle the global mess – we need to make sure it can clean it up.
Robert F. Cekuta is a member of the advisory board of the Caspian Policy Center, an independent nonprofit research think tank based in Washington, DC. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2015 to 2018, and previously Senior Deputy of the U.S. State Department. Secretary for Energy Resources, as well as Deputy Undersecretary for Energy, Sanctions and Commodities.