SOFIA, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Bulgaria and Greece have agreed to take a final investment decision by the end of May to pave the way for a gas pipeline aimed at reducing Sofia's dependence on Russian gas, Bulgaria's energy minister said on Thursday.
The Balkan country, which gets more than 90 percent of its gas from Gazprom through one route, has stepped up efforts to connect its gas network to neighbours after Moscow cancelled its South Stream pipeline project.
Bulgaria has been saying it needs to build gas links with neighbours Greece, Romania, Turkey and Serbia since 2009 when a spat between Ukraine and Russia left the Balkan country without gas imports for two weeks, but has yet to make a gas connection.
Bulgaria now hopes to start building the 180 km, 220 million euro ($250 million) pipeline linking its network to Greece this year and have it operational by 2018, when it will be able to import Azeri gas as well as gas from Greek LNG terminals.
"This pipeline is strategic for the European Union and is of common interest," Bulgarian Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova said in a statement after meeting her Greek counterpart Panagiotis Lafazanis in the Azeri capital Baku.
Bulgaria's state energy holding BEH has a 50 percent stake in the gas link with the rest held by Greek state gas operator DEPA and Italy's Edison. It will be able to pump up to 3 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year.
The European Commission, which has already contributed 45 million euros towards the pipeline, is considering whether to increase its grant to support Bulgaria, which was hit in particular by the scrapping of South Stream.
Bulgaria, which hoped to benefit from the transport of more than 63 bcm of Russian gas through its territory to central Europe, bypassing Ukraine, is now hoping to get EU financing and a nod to become a regional gas hub.
$1 = 0.8812 euros Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; editing by David Clarke