Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center is Necessary

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the eastern Mediterranean in March accentuates the American search for ways to integrate energy development into a broader security entente or organization. It came nearly at the same time that the bipartisan-sponsored Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 was introduced in the U.S. Congress. This bill mandates the establishment of a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center and requires the Secretary of State to report to Congress on a “plan to work with United States businesses seeking to invest in Eastern Mediterranean energy exploration, development, and cooperation.”

The international security aspects of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act focus on cooperation with Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. The language proposing to establish the Energy Center, however, does not have that restriction.

According to the legislation, the center would be established by the Secretary of Energy in consultation with the Secretary of State. At least the initial funds would therefore presumably come from appropriations to the respective Departments in the executive branch. Yet it would not need to be based in Washington.

The scope of the Center’s responsibilities, as defined by the legislation, would be quite wide. It would bring together institutions of higher education, the private sector, and others focusing first of all on offshore energy development. It would seek, in addition, to develop more widely “robust academic cooperation in energy innovation technology and engineering, water science, technology transfer, and analysis of emerging geopolitical implications.”

It could make sense to locate the Center in a city having a university highly specialized in petroleum engineering. United States companies lag in the capacity to lay offshore pipelines, in which the world industry has made great advances in the last 20 years. Of the dozen companies with this capacity, only one is American and it has recently undergone reorganization.

Such a center appears as a leaner, while also more realistic and comprehensive, competitor to the idea of an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which was explored last January in Cairo among the Cyprus-Greece-Israel trilateral with Egyptian, Italian, Jordanian, and Palestinian energy ministers. The Energy Center could be a useful complement to the Forum if the latter’s organization ever takes off. It has held only one meeting, in January this year.

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Washington last month, the U.S. expressed its interest in attending, as an observer, the Forum’s next meeting set for Cairo at the end of that month. There is no indication, however, that such a meeting has occurred. It is the second, third, and fourth meetings of organizations like the Forum that determine their viability.

The European Union is encouraging development of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum as a platform for multilateral dialogue about maximizing gas use and transport infrastructure in the region. However, in mid-April, a trilateral meeting among Cyprus, Greece, and Jordan took place without reference to the Forum, where energy matters were treated along with other agenda items. Likewise in mid-March, a Cyprus-Egypt-Greece trilateral was held.

The Forum does not rule out such trilaterals (including Cyprus-Greece-Israel), quadrilaterals, or other formations. It looks likely to serve only as an umbrella or, at most, a clearing-house or collection-point for information. The Europeans are interested because the economically viable projects for offshore natural gas development at present involved their transmission to Egypt and liquefaction for export to Europe and the world.

The proposed U.S.-based Energy Center could well serve as a complement to the Forum and American diplomatic resource. It is not out of the question that Egypt would cooperate formally or informally with it. Egypt has already undertaken strategic energy negotiations and signed relevant memoranda of understanding with the EU. It appears that Egypt, which has declared the Forum’s headquarters already established in Cairo, looks to use it first of all as an instrument of national policy, with attention to international cooperation only insofar as this may serve Egyptian national interests.

The current legislation establishing the center also includes provisions for addressing attempts at power projection into the region by Russia and also, without naming it, also by Iran. The security environment is increasingly complex as a scramble emerges for a maritime presence to secure fields and projects.

We are seeing increasing cooperation between Russia and almost all the countries of the Mediterranean in a new way. Lessons learned from counter-piracy patrolling off the coast of Somalia may become a model for Russia to use in a hub-spoke strategy.

Increased American attention is called for. Gas is a major feature of the future energy environment. The configuration of fields and their ultimate impact on the world market means the Eastern Mediterranean will be important for years to come.

The establishment of such an energy center will increase the U.S. presence in a critical zone of trans-regional influence where energy is key. It also provides an opportunity for American companies to become competitive in the world market for undersea pipe-laying, which will only increase in significance. Of the dozen firms worldwide that specialize in this highly technical sector, only one is based in the U.S. and it was recently compelled to undergo reorganization.

Establishing a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center can help to create a key U.S. based link, bringing together industry and academia, focused on developing national capacity to evaluate and address energy issues arising in the Eastern Mediterranean. The benefits to American foreign policy from such a focus on the emerging energy nexus among Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa are clear.