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Czech Energy Expert Says Europe, Not Russia, Should Call The Shots

  • Bruce Pannier

A natural gas storage site in the Czech Republic. Bartuska backs alternatives to oil to improve European energy security.

A natural gas storage site in the Czech Republic. Bartuska backs alternatives to oil to improve European energy security.

PRAGUE -- 2009 has been a busy year so far for Vaclav Bartuska, the Czech ambassador-at-large for energy security.

With his country currently holding the EU's rotating six-month presidency, it was Bartuska who was tasked with heading efforts in January to mediate in a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that caused a cutoff in natural gas supplies to EU countries.

Bartuska is a hawk when it comes to the EU's energy independence. By his own admission, his bluntness on the issue has often been poorly received by many in the EU and elsewhere.

Speaking at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters on March 25, Bartuska reiterated his call for the EU to take urgent steps toward energy independence, and stated his views on Brussels' relations with Ukraine and Russia.

He began with the January crisis, which left some EU countries freezing in the midst of one of the coldest winters in recent years. Bartuska said the crisis -- though severe -- did not last long enough for the EU to fully comprehend the need to change its energy policies.

"What we really need is a few more crises in deliveries for Europe. Because we need to wake up, and the one in January was too short and too small," Bartuska said. "And I would to thank [Russian] Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin and his colleagues for helping us to form a unified European policy, because without his help we would never have the EU 27 speaking with one voice in January this year."

Bartuska pointed out that the EU was Russia's biggest consumer of natural gas. As such, he said, it should be the EU, and not Russia, that dictates the terms of gas sales.

"We don't use the power that we have. We are the biggest market in the world -- half a billion people," he said. "We should be calling the shots, not the suppliers. But because we are divided and we each act alone, we miss out on this opportunity we have."

Failure To Adapt

Bartuska blamed the EU, particularly the newer members who were once part of the Communist bloc, for the dilemma they found themselves in January.

"It's been now 18 years since the demise of the Soviet Union, and 20 years since Eastern Europe got free. That's plenty of time," Bartuska said. "The truth is that energy and dependence on Russia for most Eastern and Central European countries was not a matter of concern for all those years."

But Bartuska added that older EU members who are less dependent on Russia for energy supplies might not grasp the full extent of the newer members' problems in their relationship with Russia and need for Russian energy supplies.

"The truth is that France and Germany and Britain are much more secure than [Central and Eastern Europe], which is why they don't really share our fear, because they have nothing to fear," he said.

If a country has many major energy suppliers, and no single predominant supplier, it has little to fear, Bartuska said. "If Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] stops delivering gas, you can get it from elsewhere. But if you buy 100 percent of your gas from Russia, it's a different story."

Bartuska said it is time to get tough with Moscow and to realize that Russia's threats of redirecting gas or oil eastward, instead of to the West, are hollow.

"This is the favorite line of Vladimir Putin, that if Europe doesn't behave he will redirect the flow [of gas or oil] to China," he said. "To build the trunk pipelines that could carry the gas to China, you will have to spend plenty of money on that, tens of billions of dollars. And China can also play hardball."

Hopes For LNG

As for other EU options, Bartuska said building more gas pipelines, even those that plan to circumvent Russian or Ukrainian territory, are not the answer. But he says that the path taken by Britain -- importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, Trinidad, Nigeria, and Algeria, among others -- is a strategy that would work for other European countries.

"For me, I must say the fixed pipelines don't really bring much hope, because replacing Russia with Turkmenistan or Iran, replacing Ukraine with Turkey, doesn't really fundamentally change your situation," Bartuska said.

"I do believe that LNG brings freedom," he continued. "It's still slightly more expensive than piped gas, but at the same time I do believe that there is a price for freedom of movement and I like that."

Answering a question about the cost of building the infrastructure to handle and distribute liquefied natural gas, Bartuska named the EU countries that already have or are planning on building the needed terminals to receive LNG: France, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. But he noted that in Central and Eastern Europe, only Poland is developing its LNG infrastructure.

Bartuska said it would be easier than one might imagine to connect EU port cities receiving LNG to countries in the continent's interior.

"What we really need in Europe are connections between countries, and you would be surprised by how little is actually needed. In the integration between Poland and the Czech Republic, all that is needed is 10 kilometers of pipe. That's not much," Bartuska said.

"In January, when we wanted to help Slovakia to get some gas...from the Czech Republic, we were told by the companies in the Slovak system that it would take weeks to change because something was needed; a switch, etc, etc.... In the end the whole operation took three hours."

And the cost is not prohibitive, Bartuska said. Building a kilometer of medium or high-pressure pipeline costs about 1.5 million euros (about $2 million). At that rate, extending the existing pipelines needed to make the connection to Poland would cost about 15 million euros. Similarly, about 30 kilometers of pipeline are need for Bulgaria to get piped gas from the LNG terminal in Greece, at a cost of about 45 million euros.

But Bartuska noted that the real problem is not the money or technology, but the legal complications.

"The first thing you encounter once you decide to build those connections is that somebody will say 'Not in my backyard' or 'Not through my garden, not around my city.' That's actually the bigger problem in Europe," he said. "We built a pipeline from Germany in 18 months, but all the legal work before that took almost four years."

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