Bulgaria: High Sentiment for South Stream

The majority has spoken in Bulgaria in their support for a project that could make for long-term energy security and create thousands of jobs.

According to a survey conducted by survey research organization World Thinks, 68% of Bulgarians say they support South Stream.

"Very few feel opposed or strongly opposed," explained Ben Shimshon, Director, World Thinks. "Only 5% felt negative about it and the remainder were either unsure or undecided on how they feel."

Mr. Shimshon's enterprise undertook public opinion research initiatives comprising a poll of the general public and qualitative interviews of senior stakeholders in Bulgaria's energy and environmental sectors.

At the first of a series of events dedicated to open dialogue on South Stream, entitled "Evolution of a Pipeline," he said he would speak about Bulgarians' "hopes and fears, their overarching concerns and their views on Bulgarian energy policy."

He began, "The South Stream pipeline will bring significant volumes of Russian gas to Italy, across a number of countries including Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia, and it will further diversify European energy supplies and ensure a steady supply of gas."

Similar surveys, he explained, would be performed in each of the countries that South Stream would traverse, to measure levels of support for the pipeline and to gauge stakeholder perceptions of it, isolating the advantages and disadvantages.

The online survey of the general Bulgarian public, he said, consisted of over 500 participants whose incomes varied widely. Twelve in-depth stakeholder interviews were undertaken to gauge their views.

Mr. Shimshon commented, "We got a really good spread of stakeholders that we managed to speak to, from those that are in favor of South Stream to those who are less sure about it, spreading across environmental, business, political stakeholders and those from the energy sector."

He added that 93% of people claimed that they knew something about South Stream; 22% said they knew a lot. Most said they received information on the planned natural gas pipeline from the media in Bulgaria.

He noted that older people were, in general, much more supportive of the pipeline project.

Stakeholders, he noted, had much more concern over South Stream. Among the reasons for supporting it, they cited increasing energy security, potential economic benefits like jobs and transit fees, and the prospect of increasing Bulgaria's international influence.

Areas of concern, he noted included greater reliance on Russia and on Gazprom.

"And some feel that the economic benefits are being misstated, that the transit fees are likely to deliver less than hoped for, and that there will be fewer jobs and they'll be temporary in nature," explained Mr. Shimshon.

Still, some believed there were indisputable benefits for Bulgaria from South Stream, like a long-term reduction in gas prices.

Among responses in the general public survey, Shimshon said the single most important benefit from South Stream was the prospect of job creation, with good gas prices coming just after.

"The public are much more clear," he said, "that there will be economic benefits: 61% of people agree that Bulgaria will benefit economically from the pipeline."

Public concerns centered on safety issues, something which was not a worry for interviewed stakeholders. Other potential concerns included terrorism. "The least concerning thing is the visual impact of the pipeline," he said.

World Think's survey also attempted to give a broader picture of sentiment in Bulgaria. "For the general public, their concerns are not really focused on energy issues; they're much more interested in issues around unemployment, followed by issues of economic and political corruption.

"High energy prices and a lack of investment in infrastructure were much lower down," explained Mr. Shimshon.

Among the country's hopes, he said were economic stability and achieving higher levels of employment.

Stakeholders were asked what they saw as the key energy challenge for Bulgaria.

"There were four main points that came up. The first was a lack of diversity of energy supply, in particular an over reliance on Russia when it comes to gas.

"They also tend to see a lack of domestic competition particularly in the consumer-facing market, and that leads to dominance of corporate interests rather than consumer interests which drives the agenda."

He said environmental stakeholders were concerned by consuming larger quantities of gas rather than policy solutions towards conservation.

"Public concerns that they raised were the lack of transparency in policy development; a lack of clarity about how priorities are set by the Bulgarian government; and there were concerns about relationships between government and business, which may fall under the definition of corruption," he explained.

The energy sector, he said, had an overall issue regarding lack of competition and lack of choice, especially in the gas market.

He added: "National energy policy is seen as inconsistent and incoherent. We asked stakeholders to describe Bulgaria's energy policy and they tended to feel it lacked a long-term vision. That's primarily because of a tension between a need for long-term economic investment and shorter-term electoral cycles, which means that the governments change and their priorities change.

"There's a sense that the political debate is overly polarized around energy and lacks a drive towards consensus, so there needs to be decisions that can last over the long term, over more than one electoral cycle if stability in energy policy is going to be achieved."

From the environmentalist perspective, he explained, there was a feeling that Bulgaria's sole focus was on fossil fuels rather than on the development of renewables. The public, he recalled, was also asked about how they felt about different sources of energy. Renewables received very high support, while natural gas was the most supported of the fossil fuels.

"For stakeholders, the view is that gas is definitely going to play a very important part in Bulgaria's energy mix in future, and even those who are environmental stakeholders tend to feel that this is broadly okay: gas is seen as a cleaner fuel than other fossil fuels. They are interested in seeing it as a transition fuel, a bridging fuel," explained Mr. Shimshon.

He said the theme of reliance on Russia and other natural gas producing countries came up again and again in the stakeholder interviews performed by World Thinks.

"On balance, we said 'you've heard about the potential benefits and the potential disadvantages - having thought about them, what do you feel? Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?' Sixty-five percent of the public feel that the benefits outweigh the potential disadvantages for Bulgaria," he said.

Stakeholders had some concerns about the political autonomy of Bulgaria given the tight links between Gazprom and the Russian government. Meanwhile, he noted that Bulgarian Energy Holdings was seen as a chaotic organization whose leadership was difficult to discern. There were also concerns that the Bulgarian government was not effectively representing the national interests. He explained: "Some stakeholders feel that the contracts were agreed too quickly and at too low a benefit for Bulgaria."

In conclusion, he said, "Support for South Stream is relatively high: 68% of the public support it. Stakeholders are more mixed, but on balance they're more supportive of gas, especially in the shorter term. They feel background concerns about the project, but they're not outright opposed.

"The most important areas are around trusting organizations that are involved in South Stream and building that trust: showing transparency and communicating the project well to stakeholders and to the general public," concluded World Thinks' Ben Shimshon.

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