Press Interview: MEP Maria de Graça Carvalho on ending the EU’s reliance on Russian gas

News | 13-05-2022 in Ends Europe

The European Commission is due to present next week a package on legislative proposals to end Europe’s dependence on Russia for its energy supplies, as outlined in the ‘REPowerEU’ plan published a fortnight after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. MEP Maria de Graça Carvalho was among those who pressed energy commissioner Kadri Simpson last week to support the shelved MidCat pipeline project between France and Spain. The Portuguese lawmaker – a former academic, science minister and, in her first term as an MEP, parliamentary rapporteur for the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme – told ENDS Europe this week why the mothballed project should now go ahead.

“I push very much for research and innovation, new technologies, the need to scale up technologies, and the international cooperation on energy that we need to be better interconnected,” says Cavalho, a member of the European Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy (ITRE) now and during a previous term as an MEP from 2009 to 2014. (She is now also vice-chair of the fisheries committee).

The EU needs to pay attention to security of supply alongside the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, she says, an argument she voiced in a plenary debate on 3 May, where the centre-right EPP group member urged energy commissioner Kadri Simson to lend her support to the MidCat gas pipeline. Formerly a project of common interest (PCI), it stalled in 2019 when the French government, followed by Spain, withdrew support.

Simson told Carvalho and other Iberian MEPs that she saw electricity interconnectors, which can help to integrate more renewable power generation capacity into the grid, as a higher priority. However, just two days later Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stood next to Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez in Barcelona and said increasing gas interconnection between Spain and France was one of her administration’s “major priorities”.

“I noticed that the position of the Commission is evolving and they are now quite keen to find a solution, to have a better gas connection between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of the EU,” Carvalho says. Spain and Portugal have eight of Europe’s 23 LNG terminals and a supply pipeline from Algeria, with the capacity to import more gas than they need. “But we cannot transport this gas to France and to the rest of Europe, this is the situation,” Carvalho says.

The MEP acknowledges the arguments – voiced in particular by environmental campaigners – that building new gas infrastructure as a knee-jerk response to Russia’s invasion could risk locking in dependency on a fossil fuel the EU was planning to largely eschew by mid-century, and that in any case it already has sufficient gas infrastructure to escape Russia’s clutches, providing it accelerates renewable energy deployment.

“It is not exactly where it is required,” Carvalho says. “We still need to finalise some interconnections, and the Iberian peninsula is not the only one.”

That is not to say the Portuguese lawmaker sees a new pipeline across the Pyrenees as essential to weaning Europe off Russian gas. “I hope that we are able to stop importing Russian gas before we have the MidCat because it takes… at least two years to build.” Carvalho says.

“We need to find another solution quicker,” she says. “But for the consolidation of this diversification and for the future, thinking in terms of the hydrogen of the future, it is essential.”

The argument that today’s natural gas pipelines can be tomorrow’s network for transporting clean energy vector hydrogen around the continent is one the industry has been hammering home since the von der Leyen commission launched its Green Deal.

Southern Europe is seen as a natural place to produce ‘green hydrogen’, especially from solar power, and Portugal’s Socialist government has signalled its ambitions to make the Atlantic country a major player in a European market. Here Carvalho, of the opposition PSD party, appears to agree.

“We will need a lot of hydrogen for certain industrial sectors. One way is to produce in Iberia and export to northern Europe,” she said. “We cannot keep the Iberian Peninsula as an island, an energy island, because there is a lot of potential. Now in the short to medium term, LNG, but in the future, renewables.”

The signs are that the governments of both Spain and France are warming to the MidCat project. Madrid is pushing for the EU to recognise it as a project of common interest, and Spanish environment minister Teresa Ribera told local media this month that the French government understands that “they have to do it” as the “perception of risks and opportunities” changes with the geopolitical situation. Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s insistence that the EU must finance the interconnector could be a tougher sell in Brussels, but Carvalho appears to at least partly share this view.

“We need extra funding, and it is not funding that we have available in any of the programmes existing now,” Carvalho says. The EU must come up with a system to enable the financing of interconnectors needed to ensure energy security and the broader energy transition, she argues. “Another Recovery and Resilience plan for energy strategic autonomy, all combined with the European Investment Bank,” she says, referring to the post-covid economic stimulus scheme.

Carvalho wants to see something like this on 18 May, when the Commission is slated to present the REPowerEU proposals. “We want to see concrete measures, and the calendar,” she says. Merely putting MidCat back on the PCI list probably won’t be enough, the MEP adds, suggesting the Commission might come up with some sort of fast-tracking policy and fresh sources of financial support. “It’s not enough to say that we want to have a reduction of a certain percentage by the end of the year – we need to know how to do it.”

As we speak, a debate over the Taxonomy Regulation, which will define what investments qualify as ‘sustainable’ for the purposes of the Green Deal and EU policy more broadly, is ongoing. MEPs, like the EU Council, have just weeks to decide whether or not to veto a delegated act setting out ‘climate screening criteria’ that label some nuclear and gas infrastructure as green.

“I never liked the taxonomy, for the lack of flexibility,” Carvalho says, adding her main criticism is its failure to take a “systemic” view of Europe’s energy complex and its environmental impacts. “In my view, the taxonomy should be improved, but from the beginning,” she says. On the forthcoming vote on the delegated act, however, she plans to toe the party line.

“I think there is room for improvement, but I will follow the discussions and the vote of my political group,” she said. The discussion in the EPP is ongoing.


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