Liberating an Energy Hostage

Over the past few years, media and public attention has focused more on domestic energy issues than some important energy challenges and opportunities overseas.  We have seen a major turn around in domestic oil and gas production resulting from advances in technology.  As a result our energy security has increased immensely.  But, that is not the case for much of Europe, which is heavily dependent on natural gas from Russia.

Over the past several years, Russia has interrupted the flow of gas to European countries to remind them that it remains a force to be reckoned with.  This year during a very harsh winter, Russian cut back supplies in February.  In the cut off in 2009, schools, hospitals, factories, and people froze after Russia cut off gas to Bulgaria

This demonstrates once again the dangers of an energy monopoly.  But, after years of political delays, the days of European nations being held hostage to the whims of Moscow appear to be numbered.  Azerbaijan and Turkey have signed an agreement to build a major gas pipeline, TANAP—Trans-Anotolia gas pipeline—to move Azerbaijani gas to Central and Southern European countries.  Today, those countries are hostage to Russia and pay a large premium for its gas.

The TANAP project has been whole-heartedly endorsed by both the US and UK governments, which have sent a strong signal about its geopolitical importance.

However, even with the agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey, the project faces many hurdles over the next few months, and even after those are overcome, it will take years to build.

It is unfortunate that progress on a pipeline to move Caspian Sea gas has been slowed over the past decade by geopolitics and tensions within the Caucasus region and between some of the Caucasus countries and Russia.  In spite of that, some knowledgeable people say that they finally “see light at the end of the tunnel.”

The stakes in the success of this project go beyond energy diversification for Europe.  Economic recovery in Europe is partially dependent on abundant, reliable, and affordable energy.  That is particularly true for Italy and Greece and for those countries that made a bad bet on renewables and are now backing away from them because their reality did not match the hype.

Since Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, the US has worked to encourage the creation of democratic institutions and a market economy.  Our relations with Azerbaijan have become stronger over the past two decades.  As a result, Azerbaijan joined the coalition that stood against Saddam Hussein, allows NATO over-flights from Afghanistan, and doesn’t knuckle under to Russian pressure in the region.

Tensions in the Middle East, the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, and our own very serious domestic challenges (energy and otherwise) should not distract us from the increasing importance of a foreign policy that is focused on helping nations achieve the blessings of liberty.  Pursuing the goal of strengthening democratic institutions in Azerbaijan and using our influence to help move the TANAP project to completion as quickly as possible would serve as a shining example.

William O’Keefe is the CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute.