On December 29, 2011, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement to allow the South Stream natural gas pipeline to transit the Black Sea waters in Turkey's economic zone. This was an important development, in that South Stream now has the necessary permissions to bring the Russian pipeline system to Europe via the Southern corridor. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was so excited by the development that he ordered Gazprom to move up the date to begin construction from 2013 to 2012.
There has been much speculation that the pipeline is a bluff--designed to either stop Nabucco construction or to force Ukraine to bend to Moscow's will. The truth may be more obscure. US Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy Richard Morningstar commented in a recent speech, "The Russians have...taken to building the South Stream Pipeline, although they are the only ones who know why."
The fact is that, regardless of what the original thoughts may have been concerning the pipeline, Russia has made so many commitments concerning this pipeline that it would be almost impossible for them to back out. There are three Western European private companies who are partners in this project. It is extremely doubtful that Germany's Wintershall (a division of BASF), Italy's ENI, and France's EDF would incur start-up expenses in support of a Russian political ruse. Gazprom still controls 50% of the consortium and could unilaterally kill the project, but it would incur the wrath of its other partners.
The same goes for the various governments that have signed on. Bulgaria has hired a company for a feasibility study, Slovenia has created a JV to build and operate their share of the pipeline, Serbia looks forward to being a key transit center, Greece (now to be on a spur instead of the main line) has identified the pipeline as a national priority, etc.
Much has been made that South Stream has not identified where it will get the 63 bcm annually it needs to fill the pipeline. In fact, South Stream never planned to identify new sources of gas, but to use the gas that is presently transiting the Ukrainian pipeline system, according to South Stream CEO Marcel Kramer. European Energy Review published an interview with Kramer on this subject. "The basic and overriding target of Russia is to ensure the technical, managerial and economic reliability of its gas supply. That is where South Stream comes in. Don't forget that the pipeline system in Ukraine is in a poor state. It's being said that it is old, dilapidated, without an integrated management system. To upgrade the entire route through Ukraine would also cost a lost of money. Then you get into questions of ownership, operatorship, who puts up the money, the chances of political interference. The bottom line is, is this an arrangement that the buyers of gas in Europe can rely on? If you put all this together, the answer is clear," he said.
Ukraine, of course, is opposed to the new pipeline. Energy Minister Yuri Boiko called South Stream a threat to Ukrainian national interests. "We will always be against it," he said according to UPI.
Another question has been whether there is sufficient demand for Russian natural gas to justify the building of the pipeline. Andrea Bonzanni, former consultant to the UN and the World Bank, wrote in World Politics Review that the mid- to long-term outlook for gas demand does not seem to justify the construction of both Nabucco and South Stream.
The Russians believe Europe has a long-term need for additional gas, justifying the construction. After a meeting between Gazprom Chairman Alexi Miller and Bulgargaz executive director Dimitar Gogov, UPI reported the participants issued a statement that both sides "share the opinion that given the inevitable gas demand growth in Europe, timely implementation of South Stream would meet the interests of millions of European consumers." Miller has said, "It is clear that there will be need for additional pipeline capacities" that would help mitigate risks that could have a serious impact on the European market, according to Platts. Alexander Medvedev, deputy chair of the Gazprom Management Committee, wrote in Today's Zaman, "The fact that South Stream is primarily an investment in energy security, not in boosting the market share of Russian gas, also means that it does not compete with other pipeline projects that intend to import fresh supply volumes from other possible gas sources. South Stream does not oppose these projects." RIA Novosti quoted Gazprom's Medvedev, "Even if we take into account the Nord Stream, the South Stream, the Nabucco and liquefied natural gas, all the same, the shortage of gas supplies to Europe will be some 530-700 billion cubic feet."
Some within the European Union appear to agree with this analysis. European Energy Commission Gunther Oettinger said "we don't want to block South Stream," and arranged for South Stream executives to make their case to the commission in May. At that meeting, the Russians took the opportunity to make the case that South Stream is a continuation of Russian trans-border pipelines, and third parties should not have access to it. Ths would guarantee a Gazprom monopoly on the project flow. CEO Kramer said requiring the pipeline to open to competitors would affect the project's rate of return, and could make the project more "difficult" to carry out, according to the New York Times. Oettinger, however, remained adamant: "If South Stream...gives access to gas independents active in Russia, then South Stream would deliver on two essential criteria: namely diversification of routes and counterparties. That means a stronger contribution to European diversification efforts," he said in a speech reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Whether the doubters or the believers are correct, however, it appears that the construction of the pipeline will begin within the next twelve months....