Why EastMed is not a sustainable project

Comment by Nikos Mantzaris in an article by Theodore Chondrogiannos for Investigate Europe and Reporters United, which analyzes why the EastMed pipeline that will transfer fossil gas from Israel to Europe is not a sustainable project.

The article titled “The climate hypocrisy behind the EastMed pipeline” was published on Investigate Europe on January 7, 2021.

You can read the full article:

The climate hypocrisy behind the EastMed pipeline

In November 2021, the European Commission decided to include the EastMed gas pipeline in its fifth list of Projects of Common Interest. Greece is pushing the project for geopolitical reasons, and the EU is playing along, ignoring its own climate goals. This is a joint article by Investigate Europe and Reporters United on a current act of climate hypocrisy.

The EastMed pipeline — planned to run 1,900 km in length with the capacity to deliver 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually from Cyprus and Israel to Europe via Greece — has many supporters at the governmental level, both in Greece and abroad.

In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed an intergovernmental agreement on the pipeline. The project also has the support of the United States, which views it as viable competition against Russia’s natural gas supply in the European market. EastMed would join the ranks of American LNG and other gas pipelines that bring non-Russian gas to Europe. Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and North Macedonia have also expressed their support stating that the project “promises to contribute to the wider region’s energy security”.

For the past 12 years, Greece’s political leadership has been promoting EastMed as a pillar of the country’s energy and geopolitical strategy. Investigate Europe spoke to three politicians from different political parties who have served as energy ministers in different governments. All three — ranging from the Social Democrats (PASOK), to the leftist former Syriza government and the current right-wing New Democracy — were supportive of the project.

“EastMed would put Greece on the energy map as a hub for the production and transportation of natural gas, upgrading our geopolitical role in the region,” said Yiannis Maniatis, who served as energy minister between 2013 and 2015. This is a position that he shares with his conservative colleague and previous energy minister Kostis Chatzidakis. “We consider the geopolitical dimension of the EastMed pipeline highly significant,” commented George Stathakis, who held the same portfolio from 2016 to 2019.

Harmful methane “fugitive emissions”

The EastMed is a supremely ambitious project. If it is built — at an estimated cost of €5.2 billion, along with annual maintenance costs of €90 million — it will be, according to Israel’s energy minister, the longest and deepest sub-sea gas pipeline on the planet.

Despite the political hype, the pipeline has nothing to offer consumers except more expensive energy and a worsening of the climate crisis. The extraction and burning of natural gas emit both carbon dioxide and methane, the two most crucial greenhouse gases. Methane is the more potent of the two. Over 20 years, one molecule of methane is around 90 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than a molecule of carbon dioxide.

Methane is emitted throughout the chain of extraction, transport and storage of natural gas. The term “fugitive emissions” was coined to describe the emission of greenhouse gases during the production process before the burning of natural gas, which in turn generates more emissions. The footprint of natural gas is so negative, that from 2022 onwards, the European Investment Bank (EIB) will no longer be funding natural gas projects as part of its strategy to end support for hydrocarbon infrastructure.

This is the dirty fuel that EastMed will transport. According to a report by human rights organisation Global Witness, if the pipeline remains operational until 2050, it will have generated more greenhouse gases than France, Spain and Italy emit in a year combined.

“EastMed is incompatible with climate emergency,” said Frida Kieninger, Senior Campaigner from the non-profit Food and Water Europe. “It would be the deepest gas pipeline ever laid on the seabed, with all environmental destruction that comes with it, clearly linking to a region (full of tensions) with new gas fields. Supporting the EastMed would significantly support the extraction of even more gas from problematic sources.”

The decision of the EU and Greece to support EastMed and to include the pipeline in the PCI is in stark contrast to the need to abandon gas as a fossil fuel to tackle climate change, since there are viable alternatives. Europe’s support for fossil gas looks set to increase even further. According to a draft of the European Commission’s proposal obtained by EURACTIV, the European Commission is expected to deem green some investments in natural gas power plants under certain conditions, despite gas being a fossil fuel.

The fifth PCI list that was adopted by the Commission includes 20 gas projects. Being on the list gives these projects have multiple benefits, including streamlined permit granting procedures (a binding three-and-a-half-year time limit), faster environmental assessments and eligibility for financial assistance under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

The updated list will be submitted to the European Parliament and the Council. Both co-legislators have two months, since the adoption by the Commission in November, to either accept or reject the list — a process that can be extended by a further two months. The Parliament’s decision is scheduled for January 26 in the Industry Committee and in February for the plenary. However, the European Parliament and the Council cannot amend the draft list.

Borchardt (European Commission): “EastMed should be off the PCI list”

In an exclusive interview with Investigate Europe in October 2020, the European Commission’s former Deputy Director-General of Energy, Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, spoke plainly about the project.

Borchardt clarified that being on the PCI list does not mean any guarantee for financing by the EU. Speaking about projects that have been on the list without any progress for years, he said, “If a project has not seen any development for three, four years, it should be automatically be taken off the list. They are just there because the governments or the promoters want it, so they are not necessarily linked with security of supply or to decarbonisation aspects.”

Borchardt claims that EastMed is one such project.“I can understand that there is a lot of gas in the Mediterranean Sea, but it would make more sense to use the regional LNG facilities than to bring natural gas in a long pipeline to Greece and further into our markets,” he said. “We are also trying to move towards other sources of energy, like renewable gases and renewable electricity.”

EastMed threatens climate goals

The science is clearly against the EastMed project. “The data of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are clear,” says Dimitris Ibrahim, Climate and Energy Policy Officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Greece. “The majority of fossil fuels need to stay below ground if we are to achieve the 1.5°C target and prevent a climate collapse. According to the UN’s Climate Change Programme, governments worldwide plan to emit 110% more emissions by 2020 than is compatible with the 1.5°C target, including 71% more emissions from natural gas. In order to prevent this, projects like the EastMed must be abandoned.”

Nikos Mantzaris, Senior Policy Analyst at Green Tank, an independent think tank, pointed out that at COP26, it was recorded that countries’ commitments for 2030 would not set us up to achieve the 1.5°C target. “It is not possible for Europe, which wishes to be considered a global climate leader, to squander valuable resources on infrastructure like EastMed for the transport of so-called ‘natural’ gas, whose combustion will add tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year,” he added.

Europe doesn’t need EastMed

Data shows that EastMed is not required to meet Europe’s energy demand. According to the consultancy firm Artelys, the EU has sufficient supplies from Norway, Russia, Central Asia and North Africa to cover demand. This is even assuming a supply shock in one of the source countries, given that Europe’s natural gas requirements are expected to diminish over time.

If it is to stay below the 1.5°C target, Europe must cut its consumption of natural gas by a quarter of 2018 levels by 2030, and by 90% by 2050. Such a rapid reduction in demand means there will be no time to make use of the EastMed gas. The Cyprus fields are not expected to start production until 2030, according to energy research specialist Rystad.

“According to the International Energy Agency, there is no more space to extend natural gas infrastructure”, noted Kostis Grimanis of Greenpeace. “The current infrastructure combined with projects already under construction worldwide equates to 95% of allowable emissions under the 1.5oC target for the coming decades.”

EastMed cannot achieve diversification

Supporters of the EastMed project argue that it will contribute to a diversification of natural gas sources. However, this is not the case as our research shows. To start with, its capacity is low.

Charles Ellinas, former President of the Cyprus Hydrocarbons Company pointed out that “even at full capacity, EastMed could only cover a small fraction of [Europe’s] gas imports, and will not contribute to a diversification of sources.”

Even the EU does not appear to be targeting greater diversification. In an interview with Euractiv, Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson argued that gas imports from Norway, Qatar and the US were enough to achieve independence. She also described Russia as an “important partner” on the natural gas front, as Moscow is prepared to sell at competitive prices. “I don’t see Europe turning its back on Russian gas,” commented Ellinas, “especially as this is priced much more competitively than the EastMed gas would be.”

Is EastMed financially viable?

Gas prices are a key to the financial viability of the pipeline, according to Ibrahim of WWF Greece. “The EastMed is expensive, and if it is built, it will operate in conditions of reduced demand and increased competition with other, cheaper, gas sources. It is likely that it will become a high-carbon stranded asset, causing billions of euros of losses.”

Being included in the EU’s PCI list in no way guarantees the project’s viability, as it can only provide up to a third of the funding required for construction, while the rest will have to be drawn from the private sector.

Despite these drawbacks, the EU and Greece seem determined to lock in investments in a fuel that not only damages the climate but makes consumers vulnerable to energy poverty, as critics point out. “Projects such as the EastMed make us dependent for decades on natural gas which does have a cost for the climate but, as we can see from the recent skyrocketing energy prices, costs consumers too, worsening the impact on the already energy-poor,” says Grimanis of Greenpeace.

However, criticism of EastMed seems to be gradually expanding. In a recent article, former Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Giannis Valinakis from the New Democracy party described the pipeline as moribund and unsustainable.

What makes the climate hypocrisy behind the EastMed even more glaring is the ready availability of green alternatives to natural gas. “European funds must be channelled to electricity storage and demand management infrastructure, which are an absolute prerequisite for the transition to a 100% climate-neutral electricity system based on renewables, by the middle of the next decade. This goal is widely considered as the stepping stone to total climate neutrality for OECD countries by a wide range of think tanks and research institutions”, Mantzaris noted.

The problem with gas

The problem with natural gas is not limited to the EastMed pipeline, but can be found across the range of projects included in the PCI list. In the case of Greece, these include the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline between northern Greece and Bulgaria, and the Poseidon pipeline connecting Greece to Italy.

But the 20 gas projects in the fifth PCI list cover all of Europe. Among these projects are a gas terminal in  Poland, a gas pipeline connecting Malta to Italy, the gas interconnection between Bulgaria and Serbia, an underground gas storage in Romania, the enhancement of an underground gas storage in Latvia and a pipeline in Romania to transport gas from the Black sea.

Over 100 organisations from across Europe have written a letter of protest, calling on the EU to adopt a PCI list that is free from natural gas projects. The organisations claimed that if all the proposed PCI fossil gas projects are built, they will cost more than €30 billion, money “that will not be spent on moving to a clean, fair, future.”

“Fossil gas is not sustainable”, comments Kieninger of Food and Water Europe. “If more than 3% of this fossil gas (which is mainly methane) leaks, the climate impact of gas is worse than that of coal. This fact is even mentioned in the EU Commission’s own Long Term Strategy document. We cannot afford burning more gas if we want to protect our climate.”