Transatlantic debate highlights energy security worries

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Concerns about Russia dominated an energy security debate amongst influential American and EU politicians and business leaders during the first annual Brussels Forum on 30 April.

The debate on energy security was heavily tainted by the issue of Europe’s energy dependency (especially gas) on Russia. Recent comments by Gazprom’s Alexei Miller and Russia’s President Putin that Russia might start looking at the US and China for its gas deliveries if the EU would erect barriers to Gazprom’s further expansion have added to Europe’s fears after the Russia-Ukraine crisis at the beginning of 2006. The US seems to take a more critical view at Russia’s new geopolitical use of the energy weapon compared to the EU which is more dependent on cooperation with Russia.

Other issues addressed during the debate included NATO’s role in securing energy supply and critical infrastructures, tight oil markets with prices at record levels and the role of Turkey as a hub for energy supply.

The discussants included EU energy commissioner Piebalgs, General James Jones, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay, Polish defence minister Radek Sikorski, Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy and Egemen Bagis, member of the Turkish Parliament and advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister.

Energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs advocated a cooperative instead of a confrontational approach towards Russia. "The EU should rather help Russia with the necessary investments upstream", the commissioner said. On the other hand, Polish defense minister Sikorski warned that things might not be so easy. "If one side uses the paradigm of trade and market and the other side uses the paradigm of power, it is not hard to see who will prevail", Sikorski said.

The Polish defence minister also hit out hard at the German-Russian deal over the Baltic Sea gas pipeline. The agreement reached between former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Putin infuriated Warsaw because it could allow Russia to cut off gas to Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltics while still delivering gas for Germany. The new Merkel government has refused to re-negotiate the deal. "If Germany is in favour of a common European foreign policy except for relations with the US, Russia, China, reform of the UN or energy policy, what does that leave for cooperation?", Mr Sikorski stated in a press conference following the debate.

General Jones threw light on the potential role of NATO to secure energy supplies and defend critical infrastructures. 

Robin West of PFC Energy, one of the top American energy consultants, warned about the tight oil markets worldwide and pointed to the fact that some oil markets are cut off because of domestic conflicts. Refering to the Niger Delta, West recommended that G7 countries intervene to bring these productions back to the market.

Canadian foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay told the audience his country is the second largest energy supplier in the world and has huge oil reserves with the oil sands in Northern Alberta. He reminded his European friends that "we are a better place right now to do business than Venezuela or Iran".

In a debate which hardly mentioned the climate change challenge, Commissioner Piebalgs responded that he is "not big on oil sands as the use of them could produce a lot of CO2" and asked more attention for energy efficiency and the use of renewables (which was also very much absent in the debate).

Member of the Turkish Parliament Egemen Bagis  underlined his country's role as an energy corridor and hub and connected it to Turkey's future membership of the EU. "Seventy-five percent of the world's energy resources are located around Turkey", Bagis said. When asked by EURACTIV during the press conference, whether a negative outcome of Turkey's EU negotiations might also have his country look eastward to Asia, Mr Bagis answered that the "Turkish train is on the EU tracks and Turkey will not accept anything less than EU membership".

During the debate, United States Ambassador Thomas Korologos asked the most difficult question. "Although being an optimist", he said, "what about the following scenario: Russia cuts some kind of unholy alliance with Iran, the Strait of Hormuz is closed, Nigeria and its corruption, Venezuela... and oil prices go to 125 dollars, what happens?" 

Robin West agreed that it is a "conceivable scenario" and repeated his plea for increasing production but at the same time he saw the need to look at energy consumption. Commissioner Piebalgs said "the EU can survive a 125 dollar spike because we have reserve stocks" and also pointed to the progress made on clean coal.

The first annual "Brussels Forum" took place from 28-30 April and had high-level American politicians discussing with European policymakers, business chiefs and "thought leaders" about transatlantic issues such as economic competitiveness, trade and energy. In his opening speech, US senator John McCain called on the US and the EU to define their policy more "by what we stand for than by what we stand against".

The Brussels Forum is an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the US in partnership with the Bertelsmann Stiftung. 

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