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Trump team is adopting a pipeline plan to wean Europe off Russian fuel

Bureau of Energy Resources

President Donald Trump’s top national security aides believe the roadmap to Middle East peace has been traced on a physical map they have hanging in the White House marked by power plants, gas terminals and ambitious pipeline projects.

According to three senior administration officials, that map – declassified and obtained by McClatchy – has motivated members of the National Security Council to prioritize the formation of a gas forum in the Eastern Mediterranean that would simultaneously boost and entangle the economies of several countries that have been at odds for decades.

Fascination with regional energy resources has formed the basis of an organizing principle for policymaking among key members of Trump’s inner circle, who similarly view oil and gas needs as critical to their strategies toward Russia and the European Union, according to White House and Defense Department sources.

It is a rare instance of continuity between the Trump and Obama administrations. The map was first created by State Department cartographers and energy diplomats working at the direction of former Vice President Joe Biden, according to its architect, Amos Hochstein, former special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs.

“It took us a long time to create,” Hochstein told McClatchy. “There’s complete continuity, and it is thanks to the vision and leadership of Vice President Biden.”

Cross-government cooperation

The Trump administration is supporting two bipartisan congressional efforts that track with its approach: One bill that “promotes security and energy partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean,” introduced on a bipartisan basis in both houses in May, and another threatening to sanction European firms supporting the construction of Nord Stream 2 pipelines into Germany, predominantly funded by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry briefed President Donald Trump two weeks ago in the Oval Office on the Russian pipeline effort, which circumvents Ukraine by running through the maritime territory of Baltic states that are entirely reliant on Russian fuel.

The administration has grown increasingly vocal in its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project.

“If Germany persists in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as President Trump said, it could turn Germany’s economy into literally a captive of Russia,” Vice President Mike Pence said in April at a NATO anniversary event in Washington.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a NATO event in Washington, D.C. on April 3, 2019, said that if Germany persists in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, it could turn Germany's economy into a "captive of Russia."

Perry says the president will support the Senate’s sanctions legislation introduced in early May. And as the administration seeks to thwart the Russian effort north of Europe, it is also working to facilitate an Egyptian-led initiative to its south that could produce a potent regional gas market.

White House officials told McClatchy in April they had requested a formal observer role at future meetings of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – comprised of Jordan, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian Authority – offering to help flesh out the structure of the forum with U.S. expertise.

On this front, the administration enjoys support from unlikely allies. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met last week with the Cypriot president and said the Mediterranean gas forum project was a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to stymie Russian influence efforts over local energy resources. “I think that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russia can’t and should not be able to control the situation,” Engel stated.

And in late April, Bob Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey serving as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the Trump administration for its efforts while touting a bipartisan bill he recently authored with Republican Senator Marc Rubio of Florida.

The legislation “sends a clear message from the Senate to the region and the world,” Menendez stated in Athens: “The Eastern Mediterranean is a region of central importance to our country. And it must therefore figure more prominently in how we allocate diplomatic energy, engagement and resources.”

Democratic aides in the House and Senate acknowledge that energy strategy represents a rare area of agreement across the aisle.

“There is definitely bipartisan cooperation on both of these energy fronts,” said one Democratic congressional source, who made note of several recent congressional visits to the region, or CODELs, that have focused on the energy strategy. “To the extent that the [National Security Council] is informing the State Department, they have been very engaged with Congress on this.”

Two Florida congressmen, Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch and Republican Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, introduced a bill last week following Menendez and Rubio’s Senate effort that would boost the White House strategy. Countering Russia’s creeping influence over energy resources in the region “could certainly be an implication” of the bill, said a second Democratic congressional source.

State Department Acting Assistant Secretary David Satterfield traveled to Beirut last Tuesday, hoping to broker a settlement to a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, both of which lay claim to offshore territory with promising new gas fields. A State Department official told McClatchy that a resolution there could “unleash” private sector investment into the project.

“There’s a lot riding on that portion of this,” the official stated. “If that maritime border could be resolved, a lot more energy companies would be all-in on exploration. It opens up a great deal of opportunity.”

An energy strategy years in the making

The attention of prominent NSC officials – including Perry, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Senior Director for Strategic Assessments Victoria Coates and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – has once again elevated a strategy housed at an obscure office at the State Department to the interagency level. That office, called the Bureau of Energy Resources, has been working since the Obama era to wean Europe off of Russian fuel and build “an integrated energy market to catalyze regional cooperation and bolster energy security,” according to its website.

The map outlines oil and gas finds off the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon over the course of the last decade, and draws between them potential pathways for export that could ultimately facilitate the sale of regional gas to the E.U.

enr_wh_map.jpg
Bureau of Energy Resources

“I’m never surprised when an administration chooses to see that its predecessors did something right,” Hochstein said. “It’s a glaringly obvious policy choice that supports U.S. and regional interests. There isn’t much downside. But it does require attention to detail, and over two years there’s been an attempt to reinvent the wheel that has wasted time.”

Hochstein, who worked closely with Biden throughout his tenure in government, said that the map was personally presented to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during the 2015-2017 Cyprus peace process and laid the groundwork for rapprochement between Turkey and Israel after the Gaza flotilla crisis. “The Lebanese have it, the Israelis have it, the Cypriots have it – this was a huge focus,” he said.

One senior Trump administration official working on an effort to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian talks would not say whether energy cooperation is a feature of the administration’s peace plan. But the emerging Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, based in Cairo, is the only outlet that has brought Israel and the Palestinian Authority around joint cooperation agreements in recent years. “Anything that gets the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on seven points is pretty important,” another official noted.

And as the administration’s effort to form a “Middle East Strategic Alliance,” or MESA, to counter Iran sputters over reluctance among key allies, national security officials are turning to the gas forum as their primary strategic tool to advance U.S. interests regionwide.

In March, Pompeo attended a signing ceremony in Tel Aviv among Greek, Israeli and Cypriot officials for an agreement to advance a $7 billion pipeline that would facilitate the export of local gas to Europe. National security officials tell McClatchy it was an intentional signal of U.S. support for the project, although they continue to express skepticism over the feasibility and cost of laying pipe so deep beneath the sea.

“We basically support the concept of a pipeline – it’s very appealing. The question is whether its economically viable,” one official stated. “If the pipeline makes the gas too expensive on the European market right now, obviously that should be considered.”

‘Where else could Europe get its energy?’

Their emergent vision – of connecting once-rival governments through an energy grid, and of using that practical alliance to enrich the region, diversify European imports and weaken Moscow – is as close to a strategic doctrine as any yet to emerge from the Trump administration.

And yet there is a strategic paradox inherent to that vision, according to Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The idea that East Mediterranean energy could impact on the European energy balance in such a way as to dent Russian market share is a fantasy – Europe’s thirst for gas is so huge, and Russia’s ability to provide that gas is so great, that it’s a wild dream to even hope we can achieve it given the limited reserves discovered thus far,” Henderson said. “Hoping you can find gas is not the same as finding gas.”

Over two-thirds of European gas is imported from outside of the bloc, roughly half of which comes from Russia, according to the European Commission and Gazprom, amounting to nearly 200 billion cubic meters delivered in 2017.

Energy diplomats from both the Trump and Obama administrations have placed hope in promising data that indicates enough gas exists there to quench the whole of Europe. But estimates of how much fossil fuel resides underneath the outer shores of the Eastern Mediterranean are based off of sophisticated, yet imprecise, seismic modeling.

“Where else could Europe get its energy?” Henderson continued. “If I was being completely non-political on this, I would say Iran.”

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Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
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