Inside the campaign to end the Eastern Mediterranean’s flirtation with natural gas
The war in Ukraine has caused countries in the region to speed up their fossil fuel extraction efforts. But renewables are a much better investment.
“They call it ‘natural’ gas; we call it fossil gas. We’re trying to shift the wording because, in Greece, it’s almost considered an alternative (green) energy source.”
Ermioni Frezouli is a Greek environmental campaigner and policy researcher. She has been active since 1996, but last June took on a role as national coordinator for Gastivists, a global network of groups opposing new gas infrastructure.
She joined the group in part to oppose the EastMed pipeline – a gas pipeline, of almost unprecedented length and depth, that would ferry tens of billions of cubic metres of gas from Israel and Cyprus under the sea to mainland Greece and Italy.
I spoke to Frezouli back in February, just after the USA had withdrawn its support for the EastMed pipeline. This seemed like a major win. I wanted to hear about how she and others had organised on the ground in Greece, and the lessons she had for those opposing nascent pipelines the world over.
But Frezouli offered some sage words in response:
“The withdrawal of the USA from this project is important, but still, the extraction will happen. Israel has already said it wants to find different ways to sell this gas; and they will build liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals in Cyprus and in Greece. Even if the pipeline is not built, we’ll get more LNG terminals – so we will see more or less the same results.”
Since February, the invasion of Ukraine has forced Europe’s reliance on Russian gas reserves into perspective. People are worried about energy security; and countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, with sizeable and untapped gas reserves of their own, are chomping at the bit to provide solutions.
Anti-gas activism continues
The US reiterated that the EastMed pipeline was ‘not economically viable’ at the start of April, but there have been intimations towards resurrecting the project. Cyprus’ president Nicos Anastasiades last week commented that “the prospect of a corridor from the Eastern Mediterranean region to Europe [had been] gaining momentum in recent months.”
The pipeline remains plagued by funding and feasibility issues, and probably won’t get built. But gas prices are high right now. In this climate, countries involved are taking more immediate steps to unlock fossil resources. Greece, for example, has said it will speed up its exploration efforts – so as to get a full picture of how much gas can be extracted by 2023.
Therefore, the work of campaigners like Frezouli continues. In the past, she’s been involved with direct action against the pipeline. One group went to the offices of the European Commission in Athens, staging a wedding between the Greek government, the EU (who backed the pipeline as a Project of Common Interest) and fossil fuel corporations.
But a large part of Frezouli’s mission is simple awareness raising. As well as resisting individual pieces of infrastructure, activists are working hard to spread multiple messages. One, that gas extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean is an environmental issue as well as a geopolitical one.
Two, that gas exploitation is a real threat and not simply floated for political clout. “In a Greek context, the pipeline doesn’t really exist,” says Frezouli. “It’s there, but people (outside of the involved corporations and official government) don’t believe it will ever be real.
And finally, that natural gas is not a green fuel. “It’s a nice marketing trick, selling gas as a clear fuel – a transitional fuel.” Treating it in this way risks undermining these countries’ potential in the field of renewable energy.
The Eastern Mediterranean might be rich in natural gas, but it’s also rich in sun and wind. This is where collaboration across the region, and energy development, should be focused.
As Esther Bollendorff, senior gas policy coordinator at the NGO Climate Action Network Europe, comments to Energy Monitor:
“Every cent, be it public or private, that is invested in gas infrastructure isn’t going to be invested into energy savings and renewables.”
And indeed, progress is being made on a parallel project: the EuroAsia Interconnector. Also backed by the EU as a Project of Common Interest, this ‘electricity highway’ would connect the grids of Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Europe. If the electricity transported comes initially from renewables, this highway could symbolise an exciting boost in green energy security.