Reviving the MidCat gas pipeline project, an ambitious but complex challenge

Posted on Tuesday May 10, 2022 at 11:19 AM

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Spain has been calling for the revival of the MidCat gas pipeline project, which aims to strengthen gas connectivity with France and the European Union’s energy independence from Russia. An ambitious goal, but it faces several obstacles.

What is MidCat?

Initially launched in 2003, the MidCat (Middi Catalunya) project was intended to connect the French and Spanish gas networks via a 190-kilometre pipeline running from Hostalric, north of Barcelona, ​​to Barbaira, east of Carcassonne, passing through the Pyrenees.

Its goal was to bring gas from Algeria to the rest of Europe and to put an end to the energy segregation of the Iberian Peninsula, which is connected only by two low-capacity gas pipelines to France and thus to the rest of Europe.

After several years of work, the project, which was renamed STEP (South Transit East Pyrenees), was finally abandoned in early 2019 after the unfavorable opinion of French and Spanish regulators.

In question: its environmental impact, which ecologists denounced, and its lack of economic benefit. A study commissioned by the European Commission already in 2018 concluded that it could not be profitable.

Why restart it?

Depuis la guerre en Ukraine, l’UE s’est engagée à mettre fin à sa dépendance au gaz russe, qui représente près de 40% de sa consommation, ce qui a relancé l’intérêt stratégique d’une interconnexionne entre l’E France.

Spain is actually connected to Algeria by a 750 km offshore gas pipeline, Medgaz, as well as a second pipeline, GME – which was decommissioned in the fall by Algiers against the backdrop of a diplomatic crisis with Morocco but, however, has not been dismantled.

The country also has six regasification plants for liquefied natural gas (LNG), more than any other European country. This network, to which a gas port in Portugal is added, could make the peninsula a preferred gas gateway to the European Union.

MidCat is of “critical” importance “to reduce our dependence on Russian fossil fuels” and “to put an end to the blackmail of the Kremlin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted Friday in Barcelona.

What are the obstacles?

However, MidCat’s implementation hits many hurdles, starting with its cost – estimated in 2018 at €440 million – and an estimated lifespan of three or four years.

“MidCat cannot be approached as a short-term solution,” noted in mid-March the French ambassador to Spain, Jean-Michel Casa, in the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia.

Added to this problem is the lack of contacts between France and Germany, the main country interested in gas that could come from Spain: without extra work, “there could be a bottleneck,” Mr Casa insisted.

An analysis shared by Thierry Bruce, a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, who argues that “it is easier to transport gas directly by boat to Germany than to build a pipeline between Spain and France.”

“This, of course, includes the construction of gas stations in Germany,” he told AFP, but that their cost “would not be higher” than that of Medcat.

What supports?

Despite the still lively debate over its usefulness, MidCat enjoys significant support in Spain, where both Catalan regional authorities and the central government are pushing Brussels to declare the project “in the interest of society”.

France has been more conservative thus far. But according to Madrid, this situation is changing: there is a “new perception of risks and opportunities”, confirmed on Wednesday the Minister of Environmental Transition Teresa Ribera, to whom Paris “understood” that it was necessary to “do” MidCat.

However, the project could falter in its financing. For Madrid, the cost should fall on Brussels and not on the Spanish taxpayer, because this project will benefit the entire European Union. And if it considers it “decisive”, the committee has not yet committed to its funding.

Everything will undoubtedly depend on the exact features of the project: Madrid has been keen to defend its feasibility, and in recent weeks it has appealed for a gas pipeline compatible with the transport of green hydrogen. A reorientation is likely to convince Brussels, which wants to finance renewable energies as a priority.

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