Günther Oettinger, the former governor of the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg, is Germany’s representative in the European Commission. His portfolio is Energy. Hans von der Brelie with Euronews asks Oettinger about energy cooperation between Europe and Africa, about the upcoming directive on nuclear waste and the European pipeline project “Nabucco”.
Hans von der Brelie, euronews: Mr Oettinger, will the Nabucco gas-pipeline across Turkey be built or not?
Oettinger: That will be decided by end of this year. There are good reasons to pursue the project. The investing companies, the EU-Member-States and we on the European level are working on it every day. I believe that this project will be a real European project and could increase the security of natural gas supplies in Europe.
euronews: A huge pipeline like that has to be filled with something: you need the supply contracts to fill it with natural gas, and so far you don’t have them. Where are you going to get them?
Oettinger: The crucial point is that there is natural gas — a natural gas field in the Caspian region which is among the world’s biggest. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are potential contractual partners. What we are preparing will enable us to take two decisions at the same moment: the decision to build the gas pipeline and the decision about the associated supply contracts. We need long-term contracts and we need the offer of a fair price on the table.
euronews: How will international law handle the other problem of the pipeline crossing the Caspian Sea?
Oettinger: There’s no easy answer to that, either from a technical or a legal point of view. The experts are still discussing the Caspian Sea’s legal status. The outcome of this legal debate will determine if every single neighbouring country around the Caspian can interfere or not.
As for the technical problems: is it possible to build a 274km long pipeline across the Caspian, from Turkmenistan in the east to Baku in the west? Or should is the preferable option the Turkmen government’s idea to liquefy the gas and transport it by ship across the Sea? Those are questions which must be cleared up in the months ahead.
Von der Brelie: Could you bring us up to date on whether the pipeline will branch into Iran and Iraq?
Oettinger: Nabucco only makes economic sense if the pipeline moves more than 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year from the Caspian region to Europe. My assumption today is that it is possible to supply this from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. However, it is in both the interest of Europe and Iraq that Iraqi natural gas go into Nabucco.
euronews: During the Cold War, strategic competition was based on having more missiles. Today’s strategic competition seems to be about the number and size of gas pipelines: there are plans for two — almost parallel: the Russian South Stream project, and the Europeans’ Nabucco project. Is there a problem with South Stream? Can this be done?
Oettinger: This will be decided by the countries bordering each other and the Russian partners. In any case, competition invigorates business. We, the customers, are happy when there are several good things on offer.
euronews: Could Europe be held hostage to Russian gas? Is Europe dependent on it?
Oettinger: Yes, we are dependent. But we probably can not be held hostage over this. On the one hand, our experiences with our Russian partners have been good for many years. They are a stable supplier. On the other hand it’s in the Russians’ own interest to export their gas. The reason is that the pipelines are joint-financed. North Stream is an example: the Russian partner Gazprom is the majority owner and investor. There is no interest for an investor in having his own gas pipeline inactive. And there is yet another point: In the years to come, Russia is going to need European technology: machinery, industrial plants, vehicles, innovation made in Europe. Russia needs to prepare for the time following the fossil fuel era. It needs to build towards well-being and employment for the period we are approaching. So, we can call this a mutual European-Russian dependency, which is to say a dependency which is good-natured.
euronews: That leads to our next topic, the slow change in Europe’s mix of energy sources. What about building up an electricity grid to link north African and Middle Eastern countries with the European grid, to let solar and wind power be exported from the desert to Europe? Is this utopian or can it be done?
Oettinger: It is realistic vision. And it may be the best thing Europe can offer Africa: a fair energy partnership! Let’s build solar energy plants and wind energy plants where we have the most sun and where the wind conditions are the most stable. Northern Africa, the Sahara and the Middle East have the best locations. But all this depends on whether we manage to build a super-grid. We need modern electricity networks capable of transporting electricity from the south to Europe without losing it over distance.
euronews: But today there isn’t a single, strong super-grid link between Europe and North-Africa.
Oettinger: That is exactly why we are talking with investors in order to build up pilot projects, for instance between Spain and Morocco, or towards Sicily, Italy. Once begun, those projects will build up confidence and trust on both sides. I believe that the Mediterranean is a common cultural region, and so can become a common economic region also. I think the decision for “DESERTEC” will be taken within two or three years.
Von der Brelie: The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, very recently said that nuclear energy around the world and in Europe is on the upswing. Today, you are drafting a new directive on nuclear waste, to have ready in the second half of this year. What’s going to be in this upcoming European directive?
euronews: It is within our competence to decide on strict safety standards for end-of-life nuclear waste disposal locations, in terms of the appropriate geological conditions and the technology used.
Von der Brelie: What’s your intention? Will you decide if and where nuclear waste disposal sites are authorised and built?
euronews: No, that’s not my intention. I do not want to interfere with the planning and construction competences of national administrations and parliaments. That job has to be done by Member States. But we decide on the safety standards! The choice of location and size of the ultimate disposal places for nuclear waste is up to the national partners.