By Svetla Dimitrova
Hardly anyone in Bulgaria would question the need for diversifying energy sources and supply routes, particularly following the gas crisis in January 2009, when a price row between Russia and Ukraine led to a severe disruption in deliveries to much of Europe.
The Balkan nation, which imports more than 90% of its natural gas from Russia — and all of it through Ukraine — was among the worst hit by the dispute between the two former Soviet republics.
In the wake of the 2009 crisis, Bulgaria took steps towards the construction of interconnectors with Turkey (ITB), Greece (IGB), Romania (IBR) and Serbia that would link its gas transport network with those of its neighbours.
The most advanced of the four is the IBR, with all construction work expected to be completed by the end of this year. The nearly 24km-long pipeline is expected to become fully operational at the beginning of 2013.
“The gas interconnectors will ensure the security and diversification of gas deliveries to our country and the region, and will contribute to the achievement of true liberalisation of the national and regional gas market,” the Bulgarian economy, energy and tourism ministry told SETimes. “The implementation of those projects will create conditions for competition among natural gas suppliers.”
The ministry described the interconnector project with Turkey as being “key” to Bulgaria’s energy diversification efforts. According to plans, the 77km-long pipeline will carry up to 3 billion cubic metres of Caspian natural gas a year initially.
Sofia and Ankara are due to sign an intergovernmental agreement, which would speed up the implementation of the project, the ministry said.
“The construction of all those interconnectors is of critical importance,” Ivan Sotirov, a member of the National Council of the right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) told SETimes.
A former lawmaker, he cited the ITB and the IGB as the most significant of the four for achieving a true diversification of gas supplies.
“The existence of more and more opportunities is critical for reducing the risks of a crisis like the one we faced several years ago,” the former lawmaker, and a member of the recently founded Movement for Energy Independence (MEI), said. The construction of the interconnectors would have a positive effect on the domestic market and would lead to a drop in gas prices, he added.
Bulgarian Energy, Economy and Tourism Minister Traicho Traikov said last month that Russia’s Gazprom is currently charging Bulgaria more than 370 euros for 1,000 cubic metres of natural gas.
According to the MEI, Sotirov said, the construction of interconnectors is just one of the series of measures that had to be taken to ensure a real diversification of gas supplies. Further actions are also needed in the area of renewable energy resources, as well as to improve energy efficiency in Bulgaria, which has the highest energy intensive economy in Europe.
MEI, which includes other right-wing politicians, energy and economic experts, has urged parliament to cancel its mid-January decision to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing for the exploration and extraction of shale gas in the country and in its territorial Black Sea waters.
“We want that absurd moratorium to be annulled immediately,” Sotirov told SETimes.
Countries that have shale gas are paying Gazprom a price that is several times lower than the one Bulgaria is currently paying, according to Traikov.
Following talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Sofia earlier this month, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said that “nature and environment come first, and only then come financial and economic benefits.”
“Not before we have convinced society that there are no hazards in shale gas production can we go ahead,” he said following the February 5th meeting.
Clinton said the United States was a partner in improving Bulgaria’s energy independence and security, as well as in protecting its environment.
“When we demonstrate that technologies are safe, we pursue both goals at once, and we will stand with the Bulgarian people and government as they work to be able to provide affordable energy that meets your needs,” she said.
US Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy Richard Morningstar visited the country several days later for expert talks on ways to achieve those two goals.
“We discussed how important it is for Bulgaria to have transparency in the energy sector as well as diversification,” he said following his meeting with Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev. “That diversification includes in the nuclear area, and in the area of gas supply, as well as renewables and other areas and unconventional areas as well,” he said.
However, MEI is opposed to the project for the construction of the country’s second nuclear power plant in the town of Belene on the Danube River. An agreement on the plant was signed in January 2008.
The project “does not protect Bulgaria’s national interests, nor those of consumers, but meets only those of the circles of oligarchs that have been running the political processes in the country over the past 20 years”, Sotirov said.