From on to off: why Biden went cold on the Mediterranean gas pipeline from Israel

The inside story of the US President’s change of heart – and why Turkey is toasting his volte-face

A natural gas pipeline under construction. The long-planned project that would run from Israeli waters through Cyprus and Greece, then onwards into Europe, had bipartisan support in the US. dapd via AP
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While serving as vice president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden emerged as a vocal supporter of the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline that would connect Israel’s offshore gas reserves to Europe.

The long-planned project that would run from Israeli waters through Cyprus and Greece, then onwards into Europe, had bipartisan support in the US.

And in 2020 with the backing of former president Donald Trump's administration, the three countries signed an agreement aiming to complete the roughly $6 billion pipeline by 2025.

But as president, Mr Biden has had a change of heart. US officials informed Israel and Greece last month that the US would no longer support the project, citing environmental concerns over impacts at odds with the administration's move away from fossil fuels.

Henri Barkey, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “a bizarre thing” for the Biden administration to tell its allies that it no longer supported the pipeline given the timing and the optics.

The US has repeatedly called for Europe to wean itself off of Russian natural gas amid a potential invasion of Ukraine and has long sought to pursue its broader interests in the Middle East by promoting energy co-operation between its regional partners.

“The United States was interested in that because it was a way of increasing co-operation between Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt and it had also ramifications for the other countries in the Middle East,” Mr Barkey told The National.

Mr Biden himself touted the project as a “new opportunity” and a geopolitical “win-win” that could help ameliorate long-standing tension between Turkey and its regional rivals during remarks he made at Harvard University in 2014.

“Turkey fully understands that it is no longer in its interests, they have no interest to have troops remaining in Cyprus,” Mr Biden said at the time.

He added that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recognised “an overwhelming self-interest for Turkey in taking advantage of the significant resources, particularly gas, that are in the Eastern Mediterranean".

The then-vice president was certainly correct on the second point, but Mr Erdogan opted instead to pursue Turkey’s self-interest in gas through aggressive offshore oil exploration in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus.

Tension in the Eastern Mediterranean boiled over during the Trump administration, with Turkish war vessels accompanying its drill ships near Cyprus, ultimately butting heads with Greek, French and UAE naval fleets.

Turkey also signed an agreement with western Libya’s Tripoli-based government, which emphasised dubiously expansive Turkish claims over a large bulk of Eastern Mediterranean waters — in part to push back against the proposed pipeline.

Still, Turkey and Israel have sought to mend ties in recent months, with Mr Erdogan due to meet Israeli President Isaac Herzog next month after the two countries expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2018.

Mr Erdogan wasted no time in taking a victory lap after the Biden administration cancelled the pipeline, asserting that Israel could provide natural gas to Europe through Turkey instead of through Cyprus.

“There’s no question that if there was a pipeline built from Cyprus to Greece to Europe, the Turks would probably create serious problems,” said Mr Barkey.

Additionally, Europe has emphasised green energy and renewables as the path towards lessening its dependence on Russian natural gas.

But even as the US objected to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, few American officials actually expected the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline from Israel to go forward.

A former Trump administration official familiar with the matter told The National that the US never gave the pipeline its “full-throttled support” and that the Energy Department had conducted an analysis finding that the project was not economically viable.

“The pipeline from the beginning was always seen as being a little bit of a pipe dream because it was very expensive,” said Mr Barkey. “It was political, sure. There were American companies involved, but this is not a huge stake.”

Still, he noted that “American support always effects a good housekeeping seal".

“When you have American buy-in, it’s easier for banks to provide financing for more countries to be interested. In that sense, what the US says is important.”

The Biden administration has instead opted to lend the much-sought US imprimatur to other energy projects in the region.

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A State Department representative told The National that the Biden administration instead supports a submarine power cable in the Eastern Mediterranean to connect the Greek, Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian power grids and “pave the way for a clean energy transition in the region and Europe".

“In line with US climate priorities, the United States looks critically at new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to ensure US support is not directed to carbon-intensive sources and does not result in future stranded assets as we accelerate the clean energy transition,” said the representative.

The representative noted, however, that the US is still supportive of some projects to diversify natural gas supplies in Greece, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, “which will be completed sooner — and at a much lower cost — than the East Med gas pipeline".

At the same time, the former Trump administration official told The National that the Energy Department under Mr Biden has refused to release a report that examines the potential for exporting natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkey and into Europe given the hesitancy to use fossil fuels.

Conversely, the Biden administration has also thrown its support behind a World Bank-funded gas pipeline from Egypt through Jordan and Syria and into Lebanon.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill have objected to the project on the grounds that it would run afoul of a 2019 Syria sanctions law — despite the Biden administration’s assertions to the contrary.

And while Lebanon and Israel technically remain at war, the Israelis have also expressed interest in exporting natural gas to Lebanon via Jordan and then into Syria.

Amos Hochstein, the senior US adviser for energy security, arrived in Lebanon this week to pursue a separate, ongoing US effort to enable talks with Israel demarcating the maritime border in the energy-rich oceans between the two adversaries.

Although Mr Hochstein had supported the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline when he served in a similar position during the Obama administration, his diplomatic efforts under Mr Biden are more indicative of where US energy priorities in the region currently lie.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 6:18 PM