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North Africa Has No Instant Cure for Europe’s Energy Woes – Analysis

Several major energy projects connecting northwest Africa to Europe are being made necessary by current geopolitical realities, making this route a vital energy corridor.

The Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline is a unique multi-country project, while Algeria’s Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline and several other state projects also illustrate the energy options available for European security. But how these pipelines will complement and compete against each other, especially where they are being built in disputed territory, remain important questions. The time to market and interruptions to current supplies are also key drivers of the pace and scope of these projects.

The Nigeria-Morocco project is a planned 5,600-km offshore pipeline that will pass through the waters of 11 countries on its way to Morocco (Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania), before ultimately reaching Europe. Once completed, the pipeline will supply about 3 billion cubic meters of gas per day. There is, however, a major hitch: Earlier estimates indicated that it could take up to 25 years to become operational, meaning it offers no immediate answer to Europe’s energy woes. The Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline is a development project capable of uniting north-south interests in a shifting geopolitical environment, but it remains on paper for now.

This pipeline is attracting much attention amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis, the tightening of global gas supplies and the increasingly stringent sanctions on Russia. Therefore, it is increasingly of interest to European politicians as it has the potential to lessen the continent’s dependency on Russian gas, albeit decades from now. The project promises to support Africa’s socioeconomic development and bring many benefits. It would represent a reliable source of employment and attract investment to the region.

Meanwhile, Algeria’s Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline, which has already supplied Europe with gas from Algerian fields via Morocco and the Spanish and Portuguese gas grids, is standing idle as it is, unfortunately, wrapped up in politics. The Maghreb-Europe pipeline is mired in politics because of a dispute with Spain over the Nigeria-Morocco project.

The Polisario Front’s lands are the major dividing point between Morocco and Algeria, as the Nigeria-Morocco pipeline is planned to have its drop-off point — where it switches from offshore to onshore — in disputed Western Sahara. This contentious issue is creating tensions and vibrations. Thus, the principal point of impact is what Algeria and Morocco plan to do with these dueling pipeline projects and action plans.

Europe is putting much faith in Algeria’s good intentions, despite its relations with Spain and Morocco over the pipelines. Several European countries are getting closer to Algiers as a result. In September, European Council President Charles Michel visited Algeria and reiterated the need for collaboration at an extraordinarily difficult moment for Europe’s energy supply. Algeria is becoming ever so important to European security, especially given the timelines on energy requirements. Importantly, Algiers is also close to Moscow and Beijing, which leaves Europe vulnerable in the short term. This fact raises the question of how the West will apply any sanctions amid this reality.

Algiers’ ace in the pack on the energy front is the old idea of building a Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline between Algeria and Nigeria through Niger, which could significantly increase the flow of energy supplies to Europe. About 70 percent of the planned pipeline will be on Algerian territory, enabling it to earn considerable revenue, which would ultimately increase the investment capacity of the country’s energy company, Sonatrach. A new oil field has also been discovered in the southwest of the country. Hassi Illatou Est-1, which holds between 48 million and 150 million barrels, would be part of the emerging extraction plan.

Holding up these plans is Algeria’s relations with states on both sides of the territorial claim issue relating to Western Sahara. In June, Spain sided with Morocco in the conflict and, in retaliation, Algiers suspended its 2002 cooperation treaty with Madrid, thereby using the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline as a political tool.

Algeria has sought to intensify its relations with historical partners such as Italy and France as part of its competition with Morocco over future energy pipelines. The dividing line between Spain and the rest of Europe was evident. Moreover, in May, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune traveled to Rome to sign a new agreement to make Algeria Italy’s leading energy supplier.

Overall, Europe is not going to see any robust energy supply from these pipeline efforts any time soon. And if war were to ever break out between Morocco and Algeria over the disputed Western Sahara, then the North African energy picture would become even more blurry. The trans-Saharan pipeline is a great idea, but it needs to be built just like the Nigeria-Morocco project. With both these plans decades off completion, the capacity to supply energy to Europe from south of the Mediterranean remains distant. Overall, the trans-Saharan and Nigeria-Morocco pipelines remain pipe dreams for now, while the Maghreb-Europe project could become mired in Mediterranean Basin politics, with far-reaching effects.

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