While serving as vice president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden became a strong supporter of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline that would link Israel’s offshore gas reserves to Europe.
The long-planned project that would run from Israeli waters to Cyprus and Greece and then Europe had bipartisan support in the United States.
And in 2020, with the backing of former President Donald Trump’s administration, the three countries signed an agreement to complete the approximately $6 billion pipeline by 2025.
But as president, Mr. Biden changed his mind. US officials informed Israel and Greece last month that the United States would no longer support the project, citing environmental concerns about impacts at odds with the administration’s abandonment of fossil fuels.
Henri Barkey, deputy senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “a bizarre thing” for the Biden administration to tell its allies it no longer supported the pipeline given the timing and optics .
The United States has repeatedly called on Europe to wean itself off Russian natural gas amid a potential invasion of Ukraine and has long sought to pursue its broader interests in the Middle East by promoting energy cooperation. among their regional partners.
“The United States was interested in this because it was a way to increase cooperation between Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt and it also had ramifications for other countries in the Middle East,” Mr. Barkey. The National.
Mr Biden himself touted the project as a “new opportunity” and a geopolitical “win-win” that could help ease long-running tensions between Turkey and its regional rivals during remarks he made to Harvard University in 2014.
“Turkey fully understands that it is no longer in its interest, it has no interest in troops remaining in Cyprus,” Mr. Biden said at the time.
He added that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recognized “an overwhelming personal interest for Turkey to take advantage of the significant resources, especially gas, that lie in the eastern Mediterranean.”
The then vice president was certainly right on the second point, but Mr Erdogan instead opted to pursue Turkey’s personal interest in gas through aggressive offshore oil exploration in claimed disputed waters. by Cyprus.
Tension in the eastern Mediterranean has boiled over under the Trump administration, with Turkish warships accompanying its drillships near Cyprus, eventually clashing with Greek, French and Emirati naval fleets.
Turkey also signed a deal with the Tripoli-based government in western Libya that highlighted dubious Turkish claims to much of the eastern Mediterranean waters – in part to push back the pipeline project .
Still, Turkey and Israel have sought closer ties in recent months, with Mr Erdogan due to meet Israeli President Isaac Herzog next month after the two countries expelled each other in 2018.
Mr Erdogan wasted no time in taking a victory lap after the Biden administration canceled the pipeline, saying Israel could supply natural gas to Europe via Turkey instead of through Cyprus .
“There is no doubt that if there was a pipeline built from Cyprus to Greece to Europe, the Turks would probably create serious problems,” Mr Barkey said.
Additionally, Europe has been emphasizing green energy and renewables as a way to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas.
But even as the US opposed the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, few US officials actually expected the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline from Israel to go ahead.
A former Trump administration official with knowledge of the matter said The National that the United States never gave the pipeline its “full support” and that the Department of Energy had conducted an analysis concluding that the project was not economically viable.
“The pipeline from the beginning was always considered a pipe dream because it was very expensive,” Barkey said. “It was political, of course. There were American companies involved, but it’s not a huge issue.
Still, he noted that “US support still performs a good maintenance seal.”
“When you have Americans on board, it’s easier for banks to provide financing to more interested countries. In that sense, what the United States says is important.
The Biden administration has instead opted to lend the much-sought American imprimatur to other energy projects in the region.
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A State Department official said The National that the Biden administration instead backs an undersea power cable in the eastern Mediterranean to connect the Greek, Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian power grids and “pave the way for a clean energy transition in the region and in Europe.”
“Consistent with U.S. climate priorities, the United States is critically reviewing new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to ensure U.S. support is not directed to carbon-intensive sources. and does not result in future locked-in assets as we accelerate the transition to clean energy,” the rep said.
The representative noted, however, that the United States still supported certain natural gas supply diversification projects in Greece, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, “which will be completed sooner – and at a much lower cost – than the East Gas Pipeline. Med”.
At the same time, the former Trump administration official said The National that Mr. Biden’s energy department declined to release a report examining the potential for exporting natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkey and to Europe given the reluctance to use fossil fuels.
Conversely, the Biden administration has also backed a World Bank-funded gas pipeline from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill opposed the bill on the grounds that it would run counter to a 2019 Syria sanctions law — despite claims to the contrary by the Biden administration.
And while Lebanon and Israel technically remain at war, the Israelis have also expressed interest in exporting natural gas to Lebanon via Jordan and then to Syria.
Amos Hochstein, the senior US energy security adviser, arrived in Lebanon this week to continue a separate and ongoing US effort to enable talks with Israel delineating the maritime border in the energy-rich oceans between the two adversaries.
Although Mr. Hochstein supported the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Pipeline when he held a similar post under the Obama administration, his diplomatic efforts under Mr. Biden are more indicative of where U.S. energy priorities currently stand in the region.
Updated: February 11, 2022, 7:26 p.m.