Emerging Energy Impacts on Bulgaria
Russia’s unprovoked and relentless attack on Ukraine has galvanized an international response unseen in decades. Western countries swiftly responded with a steady flow of military and humanitarian assistance which were accompanied by debilitating sanctions and policy decisions designed, in part, to phase out the EU’s dependence on Russian energy imports, the revenues which unfortunately contributed to Russia’s war machine. For Bulgaria and the EU, this clarion call to action has resulted in a resounding albeit not entirely unanimous resolve for decarbonization through greater energy diversification while increasing renewable energy production. In this context, natural gas as a “transition” fuel should be revisited to ensure shortages are averted during these early stages of the transition timeline. At the same time, the increased importance of the Three Seas Initiative cannot be overstated.
A Historical Perspective
The “Great Freeze of 2009” remains etched on Europe’s social memory and serves as a stark reminder of how outsized dependence on Russian gas resulted in prolonged misery for millions of Europeans during one of the coldest winter in recent memory. The EU’s reaction to Russia’s unabashed use of gas as a political and economic weapon was sufficient enough to counter the proposed South Stream pipeline via the Black Sea but was insufficient to prevent that project from bifurcating into Turk Stream and Nord Stream 2 with its 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) capacity. Russia’s outsized 41% of EU gas imports in early 2022 was unacceptable. Recent
EU policy changes, however, will likely compel Russia to expand markets in Asia to compensate for lost exports to Europe.
The Efficiency and Diversification Challenges
Key components in the recently created REPower EU Plan include expedited reduction of Russian gas imports, maximizing solar and wind renewable energy production, and pursuing energy diversification through casting a wider net for energy sources and routes that also includes facilities to receive LNG deliveries. For its part, Bulgaria’s achieved early renewable energy success in 2010 with the 156 MW early renewables success in the Saint Nikola windfarm. Likewise, the pursuit of nuclear energy has long been mired in political squabbles
and investor uncertainly, leaving Bulgaria at a distinct disadvantage although recent attention on small nuclear reactors looks promising. The recent completion of the Interconnector Bulgaria-Greece pipeline represents a positive step forward although further progress with interconnectors, as well as the prospect of a Bulgarian gas hub, is worth pursuing. Regarding oil imports, the Lukoil refinery in Burgas remains a specific vulnerability for fuel deliveries to local customers. In the meantime, all of Europe can rapidly decrease energy demands through efficiency efforts which former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen estimates could reduce the EU’s annual gas usage by 50 bcm, a point recently emphasized by International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol. Coal, on the other hand, could be making a quick albeit undesirable return in the interim.
Shale Gas “Opportunity Lost”: Short-Term Solution or a Sacrilege?
In 2017, the United States became – simultaneously – the world’s leading producer of gas and crude oil. 18 The expanded production of shale gas, especially through the use of horizontal and directional drilling, was the major factor for this remarkable achievement which also became an active for Russian disinformation. Bulgaria’s own deposits, estimated at 500 bcm, can provide a dedicated source of natural gas while alternative energy sources such as renewables are further developed. However, the potential boon due to exploratory gas finds circa 2012 were summarily cut short due largely to strong political opposition. Such actions, given today’s realities, should not permanently eliminate revisiting an interim shale gas option to meet urgent demands despite the “transitional” tag. In the meantime, the demand for natural gas will remain steady as more international fields come on line such in Qatar – home of the world’s largest LNG project – which also plans increased LNG exports to Europe while “clean energy” sources are ramped up. Bulgaria could become an active part of the natural gas conversation through domestic production.
The Emergence of Hydrogen
Recent developments in hydrogen production look promising as a “clean” fuel, with the Gulf States indicating their intent to develop both green and blue hydrogen. Planning must also include accounting for gas pipelines to eventually support hydrogen transits. The importance for hydrogen to play an integral part in the EU’s energy mix is a significant component in the REPower EU Plan, and Bulgaria could consider interconnectors as growth in this sector develops.
Disconnecting from Russia as an energy source country will certainly stress the EU’s energy system in the short term. Given the potential, however, for creative diversification of sources and energy types, member countries should employ all possible means to ensure EU energy security as some such measures require significant political will and commitment. Increasing Europe’s LNG infrastructure is one such action that deserves immediate attention. Of note, the Three Seas Initiative is more important than ever to serve as a model in Central and Eastern Europe for encouraging efficiency and innovation via private sector investment.
Vincent Campos is a former Foreign Service Officer who served in the U.S. Department of State
from 2004 to 2022. His postings included Baghdad, Iraq; Santiago, Chile; Sofia, Bulgaria; Manama, Bahrain; Bucharest, Romania; and domestic assignments in the Bureau of Energy Resources, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Prior to joining State, he served as a U.S. Coast Guard officer where he accumulated vast domestic and international experiences including maritime safety and security, military operations, and counternarcotics activities. His comments reflect his personal views and may not necessarily reflect State Department policy.