Gas Pipeline Summit Faces Tough Choices

ria-novostiMedvedev meeting Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Friday. Karimov backed Russia's alternative to Nabucco.
BUDAPEST -- Beyond cloaking parts of Europe in winter's icy grip, the two-week cutoff of Russian gas to Europe has exposed another chilling threat -- Russia's strategic energy clout and the West's limited options.

That is adding urgency to Tuesday's summit of European leaders and non-Russian gas suppliers meant to kickstart construction of the European and U.S.-backed Nabucco pipeline and lock in non-Russian sources of gas to pump through it to Europe.

Ultimately, pipeline backers' choices may be limited to a difficult one: between Russia and Iran.

Iran, which has clashed with Europe and America over fears it is trying to make nuclear weapons, isn't invited to Budapest. But despite U.S. boycott pressure and UN sanctions, key Nabucco project officials say Iranian gas may be needed -- in part because of swift Russian moves in the great energy chess game meant to outmaneuver rivals from potential Central Asian suppliers and gain control of gas needed for Nabucco, which would run through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and ends in Austria. And Iran is second only to Russia in gas reserves.

"Europe cannot escape dependence on Russian or Iranian gas," said Michael Klare, author of "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, the New Geopolitics of Energy." "Between them, they have something like 40 percent of the world's gas supplies."

Among political leaders at the Nabucco talks will be Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev of Bulgaria -- where tens of thousands endured chilly homes as gas from Gazprom, their only source, trickled to a stop before being restored last week. So will President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and senior figures from other gas-rich central Asian countries. The United States is sending Matthew Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in a reflection of its strategic interest in seeing Europe freed from Moscow's energy grip.

Reflecting Russia's resolve, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Uzbekistan, the region's No. 2 gas producer after Turkmenistan, last week, winning key support from Tashkent for a rival trans-Russian natural gas pipeline.

Independent of Moscow is the Baku-Tblisi-Erzurum pipeline, connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey, en route to European consumers. Annual shipments of more than 6.5 billion cubic meters of gas will be nearly tripled once the pipeline is expanded in the near future.

But the route -- along with the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline -- transits Georgia, which remains exposed to renewed conflict with Russia since last year's hostilities between the two countries. And with its mandate to transport gas from the Caspian basis Nabucco, too, would have to run through Georgia -- or include Iran, something Washington would vehemently oppose and Europe's closest U.S. allies are unlikely to accept.

But Nabucco also faces other problems. Even its backers acknowledge that -- without Iranian gas -- it will be difficult to reach its annual transport capacity of 31 billion cubic meters, at least initially. Even that amounts to only a small fraction of the gas consumed annually by the European Union. And project managing director Reinhard Mischek estimates that only 8 billion to 10 billion cubic meters -- only a third of full volume -- may be available in Nabucco's first years, saying recently that he is working "on the assumption" that capacity would be reached later with the participation of other regional gas giants like Turkmenistan.

Mischek's caution is understandable. Turkmenistan and its neighbors are also being courted by Gazprom as it forges ahead with plans to tighten its gas grip on Europe and sideline Nabucco through construction of South Stream -- a pipeline looking to target the same countries as suppliers and run along a similar southern route to Europe.