Mountainous and remote, the Greek-Bulgaria border once formed the southern corner of the Iron Curtain—the dividing line between the politically free Western Europe and the communist Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe. Today, it’s where the European Union is redrawing the region’s energy map to ease its reliance on Russian natural gas. (See Top Story for more about that tense and troubled situation.)
A new pipeline—built during the COVID-19 pandemic, tested, and due to start commercial operation in June—would ensure that large volumes of gas flow between the two countries in both directions. The natural gas will be used to generate electricity, fuel industry, and heat homes.
The energy link takes on greater importance at this time. It follows Moscow’s decision this week to cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria over a demand for payments in rubles. Western sanctions in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine have devalued the Russian ruble. Russian president Vladimir Putin is demanding that nations use his currency in attempt to raise its value again.
The 110-mile pipeline project is the first of several planned gas interconnectors. Long term, the new network would give eastern European Union members and future members access to the global gas market. In the short term, it’s Bulgaria’s backup.
The new pipeline connection is called the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria. It will give Bulgaria access to ports in neighboring Greece that import liquefied natural gas, or LNG. It also will bring gas from Azerbaijan through a new pipeline system that ends in Italy.
It’s one of many efforts as EU members scramble to edit their energy mixes. Some are reverting back to coal while also planning expanded output from renewable energy sources.
Germany is the world’s biggest buyer of Russian energy. That country is looking to build LNG import terminals—but that effort will take years. Italy, another top Russian gas importer, has reached deals with Algeria, Azerbaijan, Angola, and Congo for gas supplies.
The European Union wants to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds this year. The EU has a goal to eliminate it completely over five years.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerated changes in the EU’s long-term strategy. The bloc now must adapt to energy that is more expensive but also more integrated among member nations, says Simone Tagliapietra. Tagliapietra is an energy expert at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.
“It’s a new world,” he says. “And in this new world, it’s clear that Russia doesn’t want to be part of an international order as we think of it.”
The pipeline link will run between the northeastern Greek city of Komotini and Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria. It will give Bulgaria and neighbor countries connections to access the expanding global gas market.
As many as eight additional interconnectors could be built in Eastern Europe, reaching as far as Ukraine and Austria.
Construction of the pipeline finished in early April. Testing at two metering stations and software installation is in the final stages.
(Heavy machines install a natural gas pipeline near Komotini in northern Greece in September 2020. The new pipeline is nearly operational. It will help EU countries reduce dependency on Russian gas imports. AVAX via AP)