ENERGY INDEPENDENCE: More than an issue for the electoral campaign

As Romania is able to provide itself more than 80 percent of the natural gas demand from domestic resources, we tend to look at the issue of energy independence more relaxed than the neighbouring countries. The conflict in Ukraine and the tensions during the latest period in the region have enhanced concerns at the political level as well as in the business environment. One should not ignore the fact that foreign companies are expected to invest important amounts of capital for exploiting the resources in the Black Sea. Another alternative is related to the shale gas exploitations in Vaslui County and other regions, a controversial endeavour for Romanians and the political class, still to be sorted out in the next period. However, estimations reveal Romania has some 1.4 billion cubic metres of shale gas reserves, placing it on the third place in Europe from this point of view.

The electoral campaign for the November 2 presidential elections was dominated more by the scandals surrounding the criminal investigations launched against various high placed politicians and businessmen by the National Anti-Corruption Department (DNA) rather than by heated political debates between the candidates. Anyway, it’s history by now. According to most opinion polls social-democrat Victor Ponta and liberal Klaus Johannis were expected to ‘make it’ to the second round that is to take place on November 16.

The presidential office has prerogatives mainly on the issues of foreign policy, so the policies on energy are not related directly to the seat. Nevertheless, the president’s part is to mediate between state institutions as well as contributing to the setting of the general vision for reaching strategic objectives such as energy independence. Although not a main topic, energy independence was an issue debated during the electoral campaign for the main contenders, the most explicit in intentions being Victor Ponta, while the others showed reluctance in stressing the main lines of their view for achieving energy independence in the following years.

Not depending on Gazprom

As Prime Minister, Victor Ponta showed interest in supporting energy companies in view of Black Sea operations. Ponta expressed frequently his intention to achieve energy independence and even to export natural gas to neighbouring countries, e.g. R. of Moldova and Bulgaria. During the visit the US Vice-president Joe Biden paid to Romania in May, PM Ponta discussed issues related to shale gas exploitation. Ponta said Romanian could learn from the US achievements and avoid mistakes when it comes to environment protection, but for Romania the most important thing is to reach a domestic natural gas output at a level to cover domestic demand. “Chevron is always more welcome than Gazprom,” Ponta said on this occasion. Biden expressed Washington’s support to assist Romania in order to achieve energy independence. In September PM Ponta took part to the 69th UN General Assembly. On this occasion he also had talks with American companies in the energy field in view of exploring shale gas reserves and to continue the Black Sea operations.

During the electoral campaign the social-democratic staff played the ‘pro-western’ part, saying that Ponta’s adversaries are more inclined to continue importing gas from Russia through Gazprom rather than achieving energy independence. Hesitation on behalf of other candidates fuelled this stand. PSD said “Ponta’s efforts to bring here big American companies show that those opposing shale gas exploitation and support further imports from Russia through Gazprom are those running for presidency such as Johannis and Udrea, who are more pro-Russians than pro-western.”

Victor Ponta underscored that “we have reserves, but now it’s a good opportunity for us to achieve energy independence, not to depend on Gazprom anymore.”

Ponta was the only one who plainly expressed his support both for Black Sea exploitations and support for shale gas exploitations. “We need to observe all standards in the field of environment protection in the Black Sea as well as on Romanian territory. I believe it is my duty and the duty of all responsible politicians to explain, even if we risk becoming unpopular, that it is vital for Romania to use our gas resources so that, in the near future, Gazprom’s decisions to cut part of the natural gas deliveries should not represent important news anymore,” Victor Ponta said.

Shale gas exploration, exploitations postponed

Liberal Klaus Johannis (candidate for the Christian-liberal Alliance – ACL) also approached the energy independence and security issues. Johannis has repeatedly expressed his belief that Romanian should take into account the debates taking place throughout Europe about renewable energy. He openly supports shale gas explorations in order to find out the precise quantities Romania has. “I openly support the explorations. If we are to build our energy policy, it should not be set for a short period of time, but on long-term, and we need to take into account our resources,” Johannis said. He added: “Deciding to exploit the resources now or after three or five years, that’s an issue related to technology. We have to see if the technology is safe enough for the environment, for the people living in the exploitation areas, or we need a better technology. I don’t think we should start exploitations now, at any costs, but to go ahead with the explorations.”

On the other hand, Johannis eyes energy independence in a different way. He considers on medium and short term Romania should not encourage the exploitation of its own reserves, but to find alternative resources. His political adversaries said this statement is a proof Johannis wants Romanian economy to further depend on imported energy. In this way production costs would go higher and Romanian economy is to become inefficient, they say, adding that this puts in doubt Johannis’s grounding in the field of foreign policy in a complex and agitated regional and international context.

‘No’ to shale gas exploitations

The candidate on behalf of People’s Movement Party (PMP) Elena Udrea has mostly avoided the issues of energy in her public discourse. However, Udrea finally expressed her opposition to shale gas exploitations “until 100 percent clean technologies” are available; she considers hydraulic fracturing being noxious for the environment. “By now we know shale gas is exploited by hydraulic fracturing. We know how noxious this technology is for the environment and for the people living in the exploitation areas. We cannot proceed to exploitation in these conditions. If new technologies are discovered, totally clean ones, I would say ‘Yes’, but under the current circumstances I say ‘No’,” Udrea said.

Energy independence, vital for national security

Although she considers energy independence is vital for Romania, for its national security and its independence, independent runner for presidency Monica Macovei (MEP, former minister of justice 2004 - 2007) is reluctant when it comes to shale gas exploitations. “Achieving energy independence for Romania is vital for the national security and for its independence. As far as shale gas is concerned, I haven’t understood exactly the dangers coming from hydraulic fracturing, what other substances are used. I need more expertise. I’ve been thinking about this for years. The underground reserves are ours: ours mean the people, or they are yours if they are found in your own yard. The people in the country plus the owner should take advantage from it. And I am talking about clean exploitation, safe for people. I don’t intend to tell the people to give up their lives for money,” Monica Macovei said during the electoral campaign. Macovei also referred to the domestic energy market, which should be liberalized by assuring a predictable economic environment.

The coffee drinker sits relaxed

Well, the electoral campaign is over, the first round of presidential elections has passed and we will have a new president soon. Judging by the above statements one could notice candidates attach low importance to energy independence. The fact that some 80 percent of the domestic demand is met by the domestic output gives us all (candidates included) the reasons for a relaxed mood, even in turbulent times as the ones we are going through in Europe. There is no need for swift decisions, further analysis are needed, further discussions lie ahead for all – due to the fact that Russian natural gas imports are expendable for now. Even the electorate feels the same. The Romanian coffee drinker sits relaxed in his armchair, threatened only by his poor incomes and not by the lack of natural gas for heating. This is the reason for which the electorate did not pay much attention to this very issue of energy independence. The lack of attention may leave enough room for the presidential winner to learn more about economy and foreign policy – none of the candidates excelled in these fields it seems. Whoever may become head of state, one thing is certain: it will give up populism when real and tough problems are faced and when the next president is put in front of tough decisions. More often than not populism gives way to pragmatism after the electoral campaigns. I don’t see any reasons this time it will be different.

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November 2014

June 2017