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  • Brais Freire Braña

A new international gas pipeline: A potential remedy to the EU’s dependency on Russian gas?

Russia’s recent military offensive against Ukraine has helped unveil the most hidden faults of Europe’s energy system. As such, the Spanish government seeks to find an alternative supply solution by looking south to Algeria and the region of the Maghreb by building a new pipeline across de Pyrenees, known as the Midi Pyrénées-Catalonia pipeline (MidCat). Nonetheless, President Macron, the European Commission and even the Spanish governing coalition parties hold divergent views towards the project.


An old solution to an emerging challenge


Plans on creating a high-capacity gas pipeline from northern Spain to southern France have constituted a recurring topic within the very technical and bureaucratic European Union levels for more than a decade now. MidCat surged as a potential 226 kilometer-long (140 miles) infrastructure from the Catalan town of Hostalric to the French district of Carcasonne back in 2007.


Although the line would have supported a bidirectional flow of fossil fuels, one of its main focuses was, interestingly enough, to integrate the Iberian peninsula into the European energy market. Spain and Portugal make up, together with Malta and Cyprus, one of the three so-called ‘energy islands’ within the EU, a term coined by the Union institutions which refers to regions with little to no energy interconnection capacity. As stated by the Commission back in July 2018, Spain could “hardly participate in the (...) electricity market”, consequently falling far behind the Union’s 15% interconnection target by 2030. As a result, the plan became well regarded by the immediately affected member states and the political union as a whole, and its declaration as a Project of Common Interest (PCIs) in 2015 opened the way for both accelerated permitting procedures and funding.


However, just like a one-hit wonder, this potential interconnection was dropped from further consideration as a PCI in early 2019. This happened when the Commision de Regulation de l’Energie (CRE) and the Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia (CNMC) - the respective French and Spanish competent regulatory authorities on energy supply - reached a common decision that rejected its creation on the grounds of a cost-benefit analysis report. Even though both bodies acknowledged the inherent limitations of the existing pipelines between the states, the main argument against MidCat's completion was that congestion had not been proven as a major issue of the gas interconnection capacity between France and Spain at the time.


In March 2022, the Spanish executive started promoting the revival of the MidCat pipeline as a response to the new international balances, created by the ongoing war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis. Its development would grant the rest of the continent a new channel for power sources on the brink of one of the hardest winters of the past century. And despite all that, the idea seems to have died of success once again because of the sudden Emmanuel Macron’s rejection.


Conflicting and shifting stances within the Union


Spanish President Pedro Sánchez was not alone in the pursuit of turning MidCat into a reality, but this position seems to be running out of steam. One of its major advocates during the past summer, Scholz’s government in Berlin, has taken a step away in the past few days. Similarly, Ursula Von der Leyen and the European Commission have shifted from declaring it to be ‘essential’ for the diversification of Europe’s energy supply to reminding Spain that fossil fuel projects are not eligible for the EU funds anymore, as the Spanish-German axis has released its pressure on Brussels. The Elysée, on the other hand, was never keen on the Spanish proposal, despite the declaration of the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Mair, that France would would “examine it” if given more details.


Even within the Spanish government, the matter is not clear. The governing center to left Socialist Party promoted a motion in congress in favor of revitalizing MidCat, alongside Spain’s main opposition party, the conservative and Christian-democratic Popular Party. On the other hand, three out of the four Unidas Podemos ministers (left-wing junior coalition party), also holding a seat in Congress, voted against it, despite the abstention of their leader -and likely future candidate for the next general elections- and Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Labor, Yolanda Díaz, which has led into both government and internal party frictions. This leftist organization, formed by Podemos and the Spanish Communist Party, has forged its rejection of the project by picturing it as a big-enterprise oriented public infrastructure that pulls Spain away from its climate neutrality goals.


A case for and against MidCat


Sánchez and the Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, have focused their support for the pipeline on a report published on March 2022 by the International Energy Agency that stated that the “limited interconnection (…) from Spain to France (…) constrains the use of Spanish regasification capacity for imports to other European countries.”


Those that oppose the project have put the spotlight on matters like the fight against climate change. The French government has continuously pointed out the strong environmental opposition that this new line would raise, stating that member states should focus on developing green and renewable energy sources, despite the fact that the Spanish Foreign Minister has assured that MidCat would eventually contribute to a green hydrogen supply flow between the countries. Jaume Giró, Catalan Minister of Finance, has argued as well that its construction would not be “neither easy nor quick”, accusing the national government's 8-month plan of being overly optimistic.


Many opposers have also stressed that new forms of dependence should not be pictured as adequate substitutes for current ones. Spain receives most of its natural gas through two pipelines that originate in Algeria - MedGaz, running to the coastal town of Almería, and the Maghreb, reaching the province of Cádiz through Morocco - with a capacity of 8 and 12 million cubic meters annually respectively. Nonetheless, the latter has been closed for a year, as a result of political and diplomatic tensions amongst Algeria, Spain and Morocco because of the unlawful occupation of Western Sahara by Rabat. Hence, the instability of the region prevents from counting on the EU’s Mediterranean neighbors for reliable energy sources.


Is Spain fighting a losing battle?


To sum up, the key question is whether the Union should solely prioritize long-term solutions, such as the development of renewable energy sources, or if that a reactive and short-term approach is also needed to stem the immediate impacts of the war in Eastern Europe. Be that as it may, Sánchez’s goal is clear: pushing Germany to recommit to advocating for the MidCat project in the October 5th Spanish-German Summit, which will take place in the city A Coruña with the presence of the German Chancellor.


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