Piped sub-Saharan gas to Europe unlikely before 2030
Alarm bells are ringing in Europe as governments look to bolster their energy security and reduce dependence on Russian gas. The search for alternative sources of supply is therefore top of the agenda, making gas projects once thought too leftfield more viable. A previously romantic idea to pipe sub-Saharan gas to Europe is now on the cards, and two proposed pipelines could realistically achieve this feat. But will (geo)politics, security and financing be roadblocks to success?
By land or sea
The solution will come from two lofty pipeline proposals:
o The Trans-Saharan gas pipeline (TSGP), connecting Nigeria to Algeria through the world’s largest desert via a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and Sonatrach.
o The Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline (NMGP), extending the West Africa Gas Pipeline (WAGP) to the Strait of Gibraltar. Project partners are likely to include NNPC, WAGP partners and the Moroccan state-owned extractive company ONHYM.
The end-point of Europe is shared, but the two proposals diverge significantly. The TSGP would cross more than 4,000km of sparsely populated desert, with its primary aim being to supply Europe. The NMGP, by contrast, would run for nearly twice the length of TSGP and supply both Europe and West African nations.
Geopolitics and security a major headache for TSGP
Although it has fewer stakeholders than the NMGP, geopolitics will be an issue for the TSGP due to long-running tensions between Morocco and Algeria. Should the pipeline get as far as Algeria, it is likely that existing subsea pipelines connected to Europe would be used to carry the gas to its final destination. One of these potential export routes, the Gazoduc Maghreb Europe (GME) pipeline is out of the picture after Algeria cut off gas supply to Morocco in 2021 due to rising diplomatic tensions with Rabat.
Expanded export capacity on the other pipelines that run to Europe, Medgaz and Transmed, would avoid the thorny geopolitical problem of Algeria-Morocco tensions. However, building extra capacity would likely add to the already hefty development costs of TSGP.
Security will also be a major challenge for the proposed TSGP, as it would pass through northern Nigeria and Niger. It would cross through northern parts of both countries that are rife with terrorist groups and bandits, each with an ideological interest in weakening the central government. Moreover, the longstanding vandalism in the Niger Delta would not spare either pipeline, especially as the bulk of future gas supplies would stem from offshore Nigeria. NMGP, as a predominantly maritime pipeline, would be on the whole less exposed to security threats, but piracy remains a concern in the Gulf of Guinea.
Geo-strategic value of cheap African gas will remain compelling
Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, neither TSGP nor NMGP is likely to be completed within the next five years. When added to the problems of security, financing and geopolitics laid out above, there is but a remote chance of them being realised before 2030. What’s more, even if Europe would benefit from the development of the pipelines, the acute sensitivity to net-zero targets domestically means that external funding will likely be off the table.
The pipelines won’t be an immediate salve for Europe’s energy woes. A realignment of energy strategy, powered by geopolitics, is nevertheless underway in Europe; and gas-rich West African states are well placed to benefit. But reality may yet collide with this pipe dream.
The authors of this guest commentary are Eric Humphery-Smith, Senior Africa Analyst, and Hamish Kinnear, Senior MENA Analyst, at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.