March 7, 2021

E.U. Seeks Power to Block Bilateral Energy Deals

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive arm announced plans Wednesday aimed at stopping countries in the bloc from striking bilateral deals that cede too much power to oil and gas exporters like Russia.

Europe needs to look “beyond its borders to ensure the security of energy supplies” and “act together and speak with one voice,” the E.U. energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger said at a news conference.

The proposal represents a bid by the authorities in Brussels to take more control over a sector where countries zealously guard their sovereignty, and where powerful utilities still dominate a number of key energy markets.

Mr. Oettinger said he wanted the right to demand information on energy deals involving member states and third countries before such deals are signed. Under the plan, the commission would publicize any concerns. If those concerns were ignored, the commission could sue member states to change the terms of any agreements that threatened to jeopardize the Union’s overall energy security.

The proposal would require approval by member states and the European Parliament, and governments could balk if major oil and natural gas companies vying for new contracts in places like Libya insist that sharing such information would jeopardize their negotiations.

But Mr. Oettinger said he was “optimistic” of passage after national leaders in February backed the idea for more centralized management of international energy deals. He also said the commission could be trusted to preserve confidentiality in commercially sensitive cases.

The E.U. authorities struggled last year to make sure Poland and Russia gave other operators access to a natural gas pipeline called Yamal, which is partly owned by Gazprom, the Russian monopoly gas exporter.

Europe’s relations with Russia in the energy sphere have long been tricky.

Russia supplies nearly a quarter of Europe’s natural gas. But those supplies have been interrupted in recent years because of disputes between Russia and its neighbors, like Ukraine, leading to severe shortages in parts of Europe during the depths of winter.

Mr. Oettinger said there were not “any immediate concerns” about cutoffs this coming winter as a result of continuing tension between Russia and Ukraine.

But the E.U. authorities are continuing to push plans to build a pipeline called Nabucco to deliver natural gas to Europe from the Caspian region, bypassing Russia.

On Wednesday, Mr. Oettinger reiterated his call for E.U. governments to give him a mandate to negotiate an agreement with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on a trans-Caspian gas pipeline.

That pipeline would be a key feeder for Nabucco. But Russia has long held influence in the Caspian region and wants to tap natural gas there, too.

Mr. Oettinger also said he could request similar mandates in the future in cases where the E.U. would be relying on energy infrastructure located outside the Union, like Desertec, a solar and wind energy project in North Africa.

Desertec is a project aiming to deliver as much as 15 percent of E.U. electricity needs through high-voltage transmission lines under the Mediterranean Sea.

E.U. officials said negotiating contracts at the Union level could make it easier to ensure the security of investments in solar power in countries like Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria.

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