- - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

LESBOS, GREECE — If it goes as its backers hope, a newly inaugurated pipeline crossing a half-dozen countries will shore up natural gas supplies in Europe and reduce the Continent’s worrying dependence on Russia as its critical supplier.

But many are wondering whether the pipeline can handle all the cargo — physical, economic and geopolitical — it’s expected to carry.

Slated to start operating in 2020, the $5 billion, 545-mile Trans Adriatic Pipeline will run through Italy, Greece and Albania and connect to a pipeline that runs from Turkey to Armenia and Azerbaijan, carving a southern route that bypasses Russia entirely. The pipeline is a joint venture of gas companies from Britain, Azerbaijan, Spain, Switzerland and Italy.

It is designed to provide natural gas to 7 million households in southeastern Europe, with the possibility of connecting to pipeline networks that service Western Europe as well.

It’s one of the 195 projects in the works to diversify and expand the European Union’s energy supplies and infrastructure.

“[This project is about] European energy security and diversification, but also about the access of certain countries and localities that were underprivileged regarding access to energy,” said Harry-Zachary Tzimitras, director of the Peace Research Institute in Cyprus. “It’s important for Greece as well. Greece will become possibly a hub in the future for energy transportation.”

Russia has been Europe’s leading supplier of fossil fuels for decades. Officials in the European Union have been desperate to reduce that dependence since a conflict between Russia and Ukraine erupted a decade ago and occasionally threatened supplies to the rest of Europe as well.

“The tipping point that opened the Pandora’s box of European anxieties regarding the EU’s heavy energy reliance on Russia was the Ukrainian crisis a decade ago and the subsequent first cutoff of Russian gas supplies to Europe,” said Vasileios P. Karakasis, an international affairs analyst at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “To tackle this issue, a significant number of EU members sought to detect solutions that would diversify Europe’s energy supplies.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly unhappy about the pipeline. Energy is expected to be at the top of his agenda when he visits Greece this week. Moscow had been planning its own pipeline through either Turkey or Bulgaria into Greece and Italy but shelved those plans as a result of tensions with Turkey over Syria. The European Union, meanwhile, blocked the Bulgarian portion of the project.

Greek press reports this month also suggest Athens will not be making Russia’s proposed Poseidon pipeline a focus of Mr. Putin’s visit, citing the uncertain regional geopolitics.

Mr. Putin’s trip will be his first to an EU nation since a visit to Italy nearly a year ago.

Some argue that the Adriatic pipeline doesn’t necessarily need to annoy Moscow. Russia will still be pumping gas into Europe via Germany, which has been satisfied with the Russian supply line. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline represents only a modest share of overall European gas needs, and Russia’s Gazprom is expected to still be able to offer competitive prices compared with the new pipeline, analysts say.

“It’s important not to see it in an antagonistic fashion, but rather as a complementary one making sure it serves the diversification of the energy supply,” said Mr. Tzimitras.

Others say the pipeline won’t provide as much energy independence as its backers may be banking on.

“Will this project on its own fulfill the EU’s aspirations to diminish the Russian leverage vis-a-vis the EU? The answer is straightforward: No. This does not appear foreseeable in the near future,” said Mr. Karakasis. “The estimated amount of gas transferred to Europe from Azerbaijan is not even comparable to the respective amount coming from Russia.”

A gift for Greece

Still, the pipeline is a boon for Greece, which is laboring to recover from a massive financial and economic collapse dating back to the Great Recession. The project is expected to bring 8,000 jobs to the country, where the 24 percent unemployment rate is twice the EU average.

“The launch of the construction works of the TAP is taking place at a very crucial moment for the Greek economy and the broader area,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, speaking in Thessaloniki this month with seven other heads of state and officials from the region in a ceremony to kick off construction of the pipeline.

“With regard to the Greek economy, today’s inauguration coincides with the successful completion of the first evaluation [report on the Greek economy by its creditors] and the rapid recovery for the growth for Greece,” he said.

Still, some localities in Greece and Italy are wondering what impact the pipeline will have on their homes and livelihoods.

“It’s a fact that the pipeline will change the economy of the area the TAP will cross through,” said Spyros Sofos, a professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. “And I’m not talking about the possible creation of 8,000 jobs but about the usage of the land. And it’s not only the piece of land that the pipeline is placed on; there will also be safety and access roads. That’s a big part of land that won’t be farmed anymore.”

According to a 2014 report by the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece, which serves as a technical adviser to the Greek government, the pipeline should be moved even farther north to avoid destroying productive agricultural land and the compressor station to be built outside Serres in Greece should be moved farther away for safety reasons. “The farmland and the farmers are important assets to the development of the country,” the report said.

The company building the pipeline, TAP AG, co-owned by BP, the Azerbaijani state energy company SOCAR, Italian Snam, Fluxys of Belgium, Enagas of Spain and Switzerland’s Axpo, said it has taken all precautions needed to keep the local populations safe and that it will spend millions of dollars on corporate social responsibility campaigns in the region.

An Italian movement against the pipeline questions the European Union’s energy planning and cooperation with the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, which has been accused of imprisoning journalists and activists who speak out against the government.

“We ask to the European Commission to review the procedure to define the so-called ‘projects of common interest’ that now exclude from decision those who should be the main beneficiaries from the same projects,” Marco Poti, mayor of Melendugno, said in an open letter to EU leaders. His city is the touchdown point of the pipeline in Italy, and he vows to fight it.

Some say the project will allow for U.S. and Israeli liquefied natural gas to be transported through an offshore station to be built in Alexandroupolis, in northeastern Greece, which will be connected to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline.

The U.S. is not a route country of the pipeline, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement, “but [we support it] because it provides new hope and opportunity for stability and prosperity in every country along the route and throughout the region that it neighbors.”

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