The White Stream Pipeline Project: Transcaspian Energy for the European Union
White Stream is a proposed pipeline network designed to transfer natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe through Georgia and Ukraine. Eastern members of the European Union should consider pursuing the full development of the White Stream pipeline network as an alternative to Russian natural gas imports.
The sanctioning of the Russian Federation forced much of the European Union to reconsider their dependence on energy imports. In an effort to increase energy independence, some EU members have pushed for the development of renewable energy sources and green technologies. However, much of Eastern Europe remains dependent on natural gas imports. The EU has considered diversifying its energy import market by deepening cooperation with associates like Norway or establishing new partners like Israel. Considering the rapidly changing geopolitical climate over the past three years, Eastern European members of the EU should consider the resurrection of the hypothetical White Stream project in order to satisfy energy import needs.
White Stream is a proposed pipeline network designed to transfer natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe through Georgia and Ukraine. The network would travel westward through the caucuses and stretch into the Black Sea, where it may either continue upwards towards Ukraine and Eastern Europe or continue west to Romania and the Balkans.
There are two major benefits for the European Union that would come from developing White Stream. The first is the integration of Azerbaijan's natural-gas market into the European Union's greater energy portfolio. Azerbaijan represents one of the largest exporters of natural gas and would be key to easing Eastern European dependence on Russian gas imports. Parallel to the import of Azeri natural gas, projects like White Stream open the possibility of integrating other forms of energy, such as electricity from Ukraine's nuclear power network, into the EU's greater energy market.
The second major benefit in pursuing White Stream is renewed reengagement with Georgia, Ukraine, and the Eastern Partnership. While Armenia and Belarus have entered full membership in the Russian-lead Eurasian Economic Union, the four other members of the Eastern Partnership (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) continue to express interest in further cooperation with the European Union. These four states also compose "GUAM" – a regional organization designed to pursue alternatives to Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. The pursuit of White Stream would increase EU activity in certain members of the Eastern Partnership and would foster a sense of regional interconnectivity within GUAM.
The largest hurdle in the development of White Stream is the continued existence of frozen conflicts in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. The past few years have shown that the borders of disputed areas like Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain fluid and may lead to pipelines falling under separatist occupation. Outside of Georgia, the continued fighting seen in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR/LNR)/ Donetsk People's Republic (DPR/DNR) in Eastern Ukraine represent a larger concern for security in the Transcaspian region.
There are two major actions that should be pursued if White Stream is to proceed beyond the conceptual stage. First, the European Union should consider extending a trade agreement like the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA) to Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan and the European Union hold mutual memoranda of understanding regarding gas transit and energy partnerships, the DCFTAs held by Ukraine and Georgia may complicate the project due to disagreements over industry standards and other potential trade barriers. For the sake of trade harmonization, it is best that the European Union considers extending a similar agreement to Azerbaijan.
The second major action that is critical to the development of White Stream is the advocacy and early planning of the project by individual members of the European Union. While White Stream will impact the energy politics of the entire EU, the project is immediately relevant to countries like Poland and Romania. While the bulk of the negotiating will be done by representatives of the EU, bilateral preliminary agreements are the first step in such a project. Similar to Italy's, Cyprus', and Greece's preliminary agreements for pipeline construction with Israel, eastern members of the EU should consider drafting similar agreements and treaties with Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. At the very least, these agreements will provide smaller-scale opportunities for individual energy partnerships as alternatives to Russian imports.
Justin Tomczyk is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in Political Science with minors in Russian language and Informatics.