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Politics

Greece, Bulgaria Talk Reviving Bosphorus Strait Bypass Gas Line

ATHENS – Greece’s push to wean off dependence on Russian supplies has led to talks with Bulgaria about the prospect of restarting a dead oil pipeline project that bypasses the Bosphorus Strait.

The pipeline would run 280 kilometers (174 miles) from the Greek port of Alexandroupolis on the Aegean Sea to the port of Burgas on the Black Sea, and might continue as far north as the port of Constanza in Romania, Bulgaria’s Energy Minister Roman Hristov told Al Jazeera.

European Union sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exempted oil and gas that the bloc and Greece rely on for 40 percent of needs but worries about the supplies being limited have driven a rush to alternative and sustainable sources.

“We have a two-year derogation (from EU sanctions) to buy Russian oil, but after that, we will face problems because of the hike in transit fees through the Bosphorus,” Hristov said in answer to a question from Al Jazeera at an energy conference in Athens.

“So, we have begun discussing the revival of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline, and its extension north to the ports of Varna and Constanza,” he added without indicating how far along the talks were.

Greek Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas said at the event that, “we support the project,” but then he and Hristov said they wouldn’t take nor answer any more questions about it.

The sanctions block tanker trade from Russia’s oil export terminal at Novorossiysk on the Black Sea’s east coast past the Bosphorus to EU ports on its west coast.

Refineries at Burgas and Constanza can buy oil from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

The original Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline idea, first aired in 1993, was to flow south, exporting crude oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and beyond, the report noted.

Mike Myrianthis, a Greek oil industry veteran who was involved in the project at the time, told the news site that, “the real problem was delays and bottlenecking at the strait. This is very easy to overcome with a pipeline.” He added that, “we wanted to be tied to a major producer for long-term supply … There was a very good relationship with Russia then. I remember we were talking about a second, parallel pipeline.”

IN THE PIPE

In 2007, Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia signed a political agreement to build the pipeline, with Russia promising to provide 35,000-50,000 tons of oil a year to fill it. A 650,000-ton tanker farm in Alexandroupolis would ensure a constant supply to ships.

But Bulgaria pulled out of the project in 2010, citing environmental concerns. Industry insiders told Al Jazeera however that it was American opposition to dependence on Russian oil that scuttled it.

In October, 2021 Turkey – which controls the strait – hiked transit fees for tankers using the Bosphorus Strait 500 percent to $4 per ton of oil, adding about half a percentage point to current oil prices.

“The idea is to create a north-south pipeline axis for gas and oil, which will also be reinforced by rail transport. All this network is ultimately meant to end up in Ukraine so even that country can be supplied from the south,” said Myrianthis.

Alexandroupolis is a key as it’s becoming so much more critical that the Greek government set aside an idea to sell off a controlling stake and the American military presence is building there.

It’s also an important repository for liquefied natural gas (LNG) that’s an alternative to Russian sources and Greece wants to make it a hub to transport the fuel to the EU and strengthen its geopolitical position.

A 2019 defense agreement allowed the United States to use the port of Alexandroupolis as a base to ship supplies and reinforcements to forward NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, and weapons into Ukraine, the report noted.

Russia cut gas flows to Bulgaria because it refused to pay in roubles and Bulgaria now relies totally on Greece for its gas, with the winter coming and worries in the EU about having enough supplies.

Greece uses the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) which travels from Azerbaijan across Turkey and northern Greece.

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