December 6, 2022

IntelBrief: European Effort to Replace Russian Gas Extends to Africa

AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Bottom Line up Front

  • In the wake of the ongoing war in Ukraine, European countries are looking to African countries to expand natural gas exports as a substitute for Russian supplies.
  • Developing Africa’s natural gas resources holds the potential to drive significant investment and economic development, potentially reducing poverty across the continent.
  • Proponents of natural gas development in sub-Saharan Africa argue that it should play a role in economic development and the transition to renewable fuel sources across the continent; critics argue that renewables – rather than fossil fuels – are the key to lifting millions out of energy poverty.
  • Some African leaders have accused European leaders of upholding a double standard on energy policy, after many years of urging African countries to develop renewable energy sources.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has yielded numerous unintended consequences, among them being the potential for significant, new European-led investment to develop or expand the natural gas resources in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries in North Africa, particularly Algeria and Libya, are already significant natural gas exporters that have received extensive Western investment in the energy-rich Middle East region. Yet, Algeria and Libya are experiencing regional tensions and domestic unrest – in the case of Libya, two rival governments are contending for power – that hinder their ability to ramp up natural gas exports as a substitute for Russian supplies. Egypt, relatively stable over the past eight years, has exponentially increased its natural gas exports in recent years, benefitting from a U.S. and European push to develop the resource in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the Ukraine war began, European leaders have had some success arranging additional gas supplies from other major exporters including Qatar, the United States, Australia, and Azerbaijan. Yet, European leaders assess that they will not be able to return to “business-as-usual” with Russian President Vladimir Putin any time in the foreseeable future, and they are searching for as many additional gas suppliers as possible – including in sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, some countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been able to develop a natural gas export sector. Angola, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea – all of which are significant oil exporters and members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – have been able to use oil revenues and oil-related investments to develop significant natural gas export sectors. The government of Senegal – which since the Ukraine war began has received high-level visits from European leaders such as President of Poland Andrzej Duda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz - expects to supply Germany with 2.5 million tons of gas in 2023 and as much as 10 million tons by 2030. Italian energy company Eni, which is partially state-owned, owns a floating natural gas platform off the coast of the Republic of Congo; company executives and Italian ministers, who visited the country after the invasion of Ukraine, have accelerated the project so that it can deliver gas supplies in 2023. An Eni natural gas export terminal in Mozambique, a country facing an Islamist insurgency concentrated in its northern province of Cabo Delgado, flagged off its first shipment of liquefied natural gas to Europe in mid-November. Of three planned liquefied natural gas projects in Mozambique, the Coral Sul vessel was the only one that had not been delayed by terrorist attacks. Hoping to recreate the success of the Coral Sul project, the company is also discussing with the Mozambican government about the construction an offshore export terminal to further boost future energy supplies. Offshore platforms typically yield less gas but can be constructed faster than onshore facilities. The Ukraine war has also resurrected long-stalled talks to construct a trans-Saharan natural gas pipeline that would supply Europe with Nigerian gas via Niger, with the energy ministers of Algeria, Niger, and Nigeria agreeing to set up a task force for the project to update a feasibility study for the pipeline. Further, countries including South Africa and Tanzania are home to untouched fields that could ultimately net them billions of dollars, if developed.

Concurrently, the European focus on sub-Saharan Africa as a heretofore underdeveloped source of natural gas has amplified debates in the region on overall energy policy and compounded tensions between some African leaders and their former colonial powers. Assessing that European energy investment will significantly accelerate overall economic development and raise living standards, the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) adopted a common position to promote the expansion of energy infrastructure this summer. The African Energy Commission, the AU agency responsible for coordinating energy resources across the continent, argues that natural gas and nuclear energy should play a decisive role in development alongside renewable energy sources. In advance of the “COP27” climate conference in Egypt in November, Ugandan Energy Minister Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu stated that: "Africa has woken up and we are going to exploit our natural resources." Those arguing in favor of the fossil fuel investment note that, in addition to generating hard currency revenues, natural gas can be used domestically as a bridge to a renewable energy future – the EU declared this year natural gas a transition fuel to renewables – and mitigate some of the negative impacts of current fuel sources. Approximately 600 million Africans lack access to electricity and more than 950 million people in sub-Saharan African use wood and charcoal to cook and heat their homes. According to African Development Bank, an estimated 300,000 women and 300,000 children die each year from inhaling damaging particles from charcoal; the use of charcoal has also been linked to significant respiratory problems and other health issues across the continent. Moreover, proponents of developing Africa’s natural gas resources argue that, even if African countries allow the maximum European fossil fuel investment possible, Africa would still contribute only a small amount to global emissions as compared major industrial nations such as the United States, the European Union, and China. Yet, critics argue that fossil fuels are not needed to accomplish the aforementioned development goals, with electricity from renewables being cheaper to operate in the long-term according to researchers at the International Monetary Fund.

African leaders have also accused European leaders of hypocrisy on energy policy, as European leaders are seemingly now contradicting many years of encouraging African leaders to develop renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. Some African leaders contrast European eagerness to finance fossil fuel development with the prior reluctance to finance African development of renewable sources. One activist, Mohamed Adow, Founder and Director of the Nairobi-based think-tank Power Shift Africa, told journalists at the COP27 conference that Europe was trying to make Africa its "gas station” while not giving enough money for renewable energy. He added: “We cannot allow Africa, which has missed out on fossil fuel-driven industrialization, to now become the victim of short-sighted, selfish colonialist interests, especially from Europe." Others argue that much of the additional European investment in African natural gas under discussion might not materialize if the European countries arrange enough alternative supplies elsewhere to compensate for the gas supplied by Russia. Despite their criticisms of European leaders and overall questions about long-term energy policy, it is likely that most African leaders will choose to reap the economic benefits of the significantly increased European investment in their energy sectors.