Brussels pushes Baltic states to improve energy efforts

By bne IntelliNews April 25, 2013

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The EU offered the Baltic states a ticking off for their failure to agree on shared energy projects on April 24, and pushed Vilnius to continue with moves to improve its energy security, as a delegation of officials visited Lithuania.

"Access to energy is a key issue for all countries as well as their citizens," European Economic and Social Committee President Henri Malosse said, according to a press statement, during a jaunt to the now defunct Ignalina nuclear power plant. "However, if Europe is to play a role, if European integration is to make sense, it is precisely by addressing the strategic challenge of sharing energy resources. Member States will achieve nothing in the long term if they act alone."

The tone was watered somewhat by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a speech delivered following a meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius the same day. However, the message clearly remains the same. "We also talked about the situation in Lithuania," Barroso said. "I reaffirmed the [European] Commission's support to the ambition of Lithuania to be fully integrated in the EU Baltic region's energy infrastructure."

He also pointedly remarked that "the 2014 objective of fully completing our internal energy market" is one of three key issues that "we need to have a conclusion of" ahead of Lithuania's Presidency of the Council in the second half of 2013.

Ignalina was closed in 2009 at the request of the European Commission. Decommissioning of the Soviet-era facility was one of the conditions of Lithuania's accession to the European Union in 2004.

The previous Lithuanian government spent years trying to get a pan-Baltic project to build a new nuclear plant - Visaginas - nearby, as part of an aggressive drive to reduce the region's reliance on Russian energy. Cut off from European distribution networks, the Baltics are heavily dependent on imports from the east.

However, the current government has promised to pursue "more pragmatic" relations with Moscow, and its commitment to a host of projects begun by its predecessor - with enthusiastic support from Brussels - to improve energy security has been heavily questioned.

Butkevicius had forced a non-binding referendum on Visaginas to be attached to the election he won in October. On April 22, he said Lithuania is ready to restart talks over a plan to build a pan-Baltic nuclear power plant with neighbors Estonia and Latvia - as well as Japanese investor Hitachi - but only "if the commercial terms are improved and other conditions are met."

On top of that, the three Baltic neighbours have for years been trying to work together to develop regional projects in a bid to overcome their tiny size. However, projects tend to hit a brick wall as soon as the question of location crops up - they all want the honor of hosting the facilities.

With all three countries 100% dependent on Russia for gas, a regional liquified natural gas (LNG) platform has been on the cards for a some time. However, the plan has been delayed for so long that it risks losing the funding the EU has offered to help build the project. The trio eventually asked the EU to decide for them. Consultants from Brussels plumped for Estonia, but if the facility does go ahead, its now likely to be located in Finland, for no really good reason other than it stops the quarrels.

"The closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, located relatively close to the Chernobyl site, has increased awareness of the issue of energy access in Lithuania," the EESC statement added. "However, this is not solely a problem for Lithuania or its Baltic neighbours. It is a crucial issue for Europe as a whole."

The growing questions over the new Lithuanian government's commitment to expanding its energy sources has seen officials starting to respond in recent weeks. On April 24, it was the turn of Minister of Environment Valentinas Mazuronis, insisted the country's shale gas exploration tender - the inking of the contract with US energy giant Connoco phillips was suspended in March due to environmental concerns - must be pushed through.

"My position both as of a citizen and a minister is very clear: the tender has to be continued," he said in an interview with Ziniu Radijas, reports Leta. "We will include the shale gas issue on the agenda of informal meeting of ministers in Vilnius in July. Everybody, next to applying environmental safeguards, sees the perspective of moving forward."

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