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Europe’s phase-out of Russian energy over the Ukraine crisis could mean opportunity for African countries

Natural gas pipelines off the coast of Jacqueville, Ivory Coast. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)
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CAPE TOWN, South Africa — N.J. Ayuk tried for years to tout African oil and gas projects to European governments and companies.

“I used to beg for them to take my calls,” said Ayuk, the executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber. But with oil price volatility shaking global markets amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears of fuel shortages, European nations are looking more closely at Africa’s abundant natural gas as a potential new source of energy, he said.

“Right now, I think they have me on speed dial,” Ayuk said.

The change reflects the shifting geopolitical landscape in Europe, with ripple effects around the world, from the Russian invasion. Economic sanctions by the European Union, the United States and Japan have hobbled long-standing Russian trade ties.

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That means suppliers such as the underdeveloped frontier energy markets of Africa may find new energy sector investors in Europe who can no longer rely on Russian natural gas, which has long been their dominant source.

Ayuk and other African energy officials head this week to the European Commission in Brussels, followed by Berlin, for talks on Africa’s role in Europe’s energy transition. The African Energy Chamber is the continent’s largest energy advocacy group representing private companies.

“We want to see things signed. We want to see them commit to bringing in technology, funding and financing to get things done,” Ayuk said. “If we don’t have a fierce urgency of now, we are going to lose this moment.”

The E.U. buys 45 percent of its imported gas from Russia, according to the International Energy Agency.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on March 11 that the E.U. would outline proposals by mid-May to phase out the E.U.’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels by 2027.

Europe’s plan to wean off Russian energy could lead to price shocks and political blowback

That means opportunity for Africa, which has some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. The African supply could replace some of the 155 billion cubic meters that Europe imported from Russia last year.

Tim McPhie, European Commission spokesman, confirmed meetings starting Tuesday in Brussels with several African energy delegations. “When it comes to finding alternative gas suppliers, the E.U. is in discussion with a very wide range of potential exporters — including a number of countries in Africa,” McPhie said.

“The E.U. has a clear objective to diversify our gas suppliers in the short term, while retaining our focus on boosting renewables and phasing out fossil fuels to meet our climate goals,” the spokesperson said. “At present, [liquefied natural gas] offers the fastest option to diversify our gas supplies.”

The shift in global energy markets raises questions about how countries can meet their climate goals under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Europe has said it wants to reduce imports of natural gas from 2030 and move toward green energy alternatives such as renewable hydrogen.

Vincent Obisie-Orlu, a natural resource researcher at Good Governance Africa, a nonprofit organization, said Europe had long discouraged Africa from expanding its oil and gas exports and encouraged a move toward more renewable energy resources.

Now, he said, there is a risk that a rush to help Europe could push aside climate ambitions.

“It is going to be a challenge, but this may be an opportunity for Europe and Africa to collaborate on the energy transition on the continent,” Obisie-Orlu said. “It’s going to mean Europe will be able to help and support African countries develop new renewable energy resources.”

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Another question for Africa is how quickly gas can flow north to Europe after years of underinvestment in the sector amid demand and price fluctuations, and growing pressure on companies and banks to stop investing in carbon-intensive oil and gas projects.

“Africa can’t just turn on the tap and gas will see Europe,” Ayuk said. “There are a lot of things that have to happen.”

An example of the changing dynamics is the proposed Trans-Saharan gas pipeline recently resurrected by the Algerian government, which could send up to 30 billion cubic meters a year from Nigeria to Algeria via Niger and on to Europe.

In February, the three countries agreed to resume the 2,565-mile project that will link Warri in Nigeria to Hassi R’Mel in Algeria, transiting Niger. Algeria could also build upon its existing links through Italy.

“The big question is how are you going to fund it, how are you going to finance it, to drive that gas into Europe?” said Ayuk of the estimated $12-to-$15-billion project. “It could be a game-changer for Africa and for Europe.”

However, European countries have signaled they favor supporting existing energy infrastructure instead of building costly new pipelines. Countries that could benefit would be Nigeria, Angola, Senegal, Mauritania and Mozambique.

“The gas producers have some real opportunities if they can seize it in time,” said J. Peter Pham, former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel. “Certainly, this vulnerability in Europe and America’s desire to help the Europeans cope with this has made it a friendlier environment to at least talk about rational investment in fossil fuel, both for Europe’s energy security but also for Africa’s energy transition.”

Still, developing such projects as the Saharan pipeline from Nigeria also comes with security challenges, Pham cautioned. Militant groups in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region have threatened to resume attacks amid disagreements over the share of oil wealth. The country has also grappled with kidnappings for ransom and deadly Islamist insurgencies.

“As attractive of a proposal as it may seem these days, the flow of energy to Europe via a Nigeria-Niger-Algeria corridor will remain — no pun intended — a pipe dream unless security is established along the entire route,” Pham said. “As things currently stand, it’s hard to imagine construction, much less actual deliveries being made through the Sahel.”

Similar security questions threaten a project in Mozambique, which has about 2.8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, or almost 1 percent of the world’s total reserves. An insurgency by Islamic State-linked militants in the northern Cabo Delgado province suspended a multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas project by France’s TotalEnergies in April.

Next door, Tanzania has the sixth-largest gas reserves in Africa, estimated at 1.6 billion cubic meters, and is scheduled to begin construction on a $30 billion liquefied natural gas project in 2023.

Tanzanian Energy Minister January Makamba said interest in developing the country’s deep-water gas fields had picked up during global climate negotiations last year, with some considering gas as a bridging fuel between hydrocarbons and renewables. Further momentum came after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said.

Some international oil companies “have abandoned their production source in Russia, and they have market commitments in which Tanzanian gas would cover those commitments,” he said in an interview.

“We have gas, and if geopolitical developments somehow created an opportunity for us, we’re not going to complain about it,” Makamba said. “That said, we don’t want to be seen as war profiteers.”