SOFIA/ISTANBUL, Oct 5 (Reuters) - A major Kremlin-backed gas pipeline may have a better chance of supplying Europe with new gas than the much-touted EU-backed Nabucco project, designed to ease the bloc’s dependence on Russia, analysts say.
Although both projects are riddled with problems and may not move off the drawing board, the main question behind long-delayed Nabucco is whether it can secure enough Caspian and Middle East supplies to fill the pipe.
“Nabucco has fantastic political will behind it but so far no reality,” said Jonathan Stern of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
“The crucial problem with Nabucco is that while it has political support it doesn’t have the supplies to fill the 9 billion cubic metres for the first phase,” said Derek Brower, an independent energy writer who specialises in the region.
The 31-billion-cubic-metre capacity pipeline is a key plank in EU plans to diversify gas supplies away from Russia after a political dispute between Moscow and Kiev last year cut off exports via Ukraine. Russia supplies a quarter of EU’s gas.
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Egypt and even Iraq have been mentioned as possible suppliers to the 3,300 km Nabucco which will pass via Turkey and the Balkans to Austria.
But so far the five signatory countries to the 4.6 billion euro pipeline — Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria — have not secured any gas and without supplies it would be difficult to raise funding, analysts said.
“The European Union has been putting strategy ahead of the market, but at the end of the day banks are banks and the gas has to be there (to be commercially viable),” said Brower.
The rival 30 billion cubic metre Russian South Stream project, proposed by Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM) and Italy’s Eni (ENI.MI), is to be built at a great depth on the bottom of the Black Sea, which may make it too expensive.
Some analysts say it may exceed 10 billion euros.
“Laying pipe across the Black Sea is not a piece of cake, you have a body of water 900 km to cross and 2,200 metres in depth. So it must be proven feasible,” said a distribution industry source. “This Black Sea crossing would be the deepest and the longest off shore pipeline ever built”.
Despite possible high costs, few analysts doubt Gazprom’s resolve to build pipelines like South Stream — which will come ashore in Bulgaria — to help it reduce its dependence on transit countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey.
Experts said that if the EU wanted to make Nabucco a reality and bypass Russia, it should back up the project with funding not just political will.
“Nabucco could look realistic if the EU, because it’s made such a big deal about it, was to come forward with several billion euros of financing,” Stern said. “But the EU has never done that in the past and I don’t think it will do it now.”
With Europe’s energy needs expected to rise, gas projects see the large and relatively unexploited fields around the Middle East and traditionally Russian-allied Caspian region as the most viable resource to fill up planned pipelines.
While Azerbaijan has signed agreements with Nabucco shareholders to export its gas for the pipeline, it will not have enough to set aside to get the project into its first phase, analysts said.
“Azerbaijan talks about being a partner, but it doesn’t have the capacity to fill the Nabucco, that is why (Europe) has to get in touch with other Caspian countries,” said Sohbet Karpuz, a senior analyst at an energy consultancy agency.
But Western access to Kazakh and Turkmen gas could be compromised if Moscow can push through with a deal to expand its existing gas links with the two countries.
A new proposed link will also carry another 10 billion cubic metres of Turkmen gas to Russia annually, exploiting the advantage it has over Europe in central Asia — infrastructure.
In order to overcome problems of finding a westward route for central Asian gas, the United States has given Azerbaijan $1.7 million to conduct a feasibility study on a Trans-Caspian pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
The project, proposed years ago, has been frozen by conflicting claims between the two countries over reserves in the Caspian.
Iran is also a very unlikely supplier of gas to Nabucco not least because of its poor track record as a supplier due to its underdeveloped infrastructure, analysts said.
Diplomatic tension over Tehran’s refusal to suspend its nuclear programme and U.S. opposition to any plans to ship Iranian gas are other hurdles.
“Both Nabucco and South Stream are infrastructure projects that impact states in a particular geopolitical area. They will never be realised if they fail to make an agreement with all the countries in the region,” said the industry source.