The European Union has embarked on a desperate search for substitutes for coal, oil and natural gas. In the REPowerEU policy document, the European Commission proposes to “make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels before 2030”. To do this, he plans, first of all, to work with “international partners to find alternative sources of energy”, such as the gas found underground in some African countries.
African governments were quick to welcome this transformation of European policy. Before the war, Algeria was already the third largest supplier of gas to Europe through gas pipelines to Spain and Italy. Another important part of natural gas arrives by sea from the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea). In this case, it is transported as liquefied natural gas (LNG).
In recent months, European officials have visited Algiers, Dakar, Abuja, Brazzaville and Luanda to explore the possibility of increasing gas imports. The European Commission has signed a tripartite agreement to ensure the arrival of Israeli natural gas through Egypt. In addition, investments by European companies in LNG projects are reviving. Some examples are BP in Senegal and Mauritania, ENI in Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Angola and the Republic of Congo, and Equinor and Shell in Mozambique and Tanzania.
However, African gas is valuable for the development of Africa
Africa’s natural gas is not only exported: it is also increasingly used in African countries. Many see it as a fundamental source of transition to ensure growth. Gas can replace more polluting energy sources such as firewood or coal in general, which is widely used in African homes and has detrimental effects on the health of families.
The main use, in a continent with very low levels of electrification, is that of electricity generation. This practice is already a reality in countries such as Ghana, which while exporting most of its oil to international markets, uses gas to power its electricity infrastructure. Natural gas also has the potential to supply both national and regional markets through natural gas pipelines.
Currently, the West African natural gas pipeline crosses the territories of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana, and another connects South Africa with Mozambique. There are also projects along the same lines: such as the one that would supply gas to Uganda from Tanzania and the African Renaissance gas pipeline, which would be the second between Mozambique and South Africa. Finally, Nigeria would be the origin of both the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline that would reach Algeria and the one that would connect Nigeria to Morocco. The importance of these two gas pipelines is that they could be connected to the European gas networks.
The problems that translate into dilemmas
- Africa’s energy needs are far greater than Europe’s energy needs. As much as the production and availability of natural gas can be increased at any given time, its extraction will always result in the depletion of a non-renewable resource. This can become a mortgage for the medium and long-term strategy in the ambitions of electrification and industrialization in Africa.
- The infrastructure required to export natural gas is not the same as that required to feed electricity grids or provide gas bottles to families on the continent. The former tend to create so-called enclave economies. And familiar stories of failure in development processes based on the extraction and sale of natural resources can be replicated.
- From another angle, environmental groups on the continent remind us that gas is a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. Therefore, any investment in natural gas reduces the resources that should be allocated to the promotion of renewable energy sources. European interest could also prove ephemeral, while the European Union maintains its goal of drastically reducing its dependence on fossil fuels by 2030. Building more gas infrastructure could become the new white elephants of growth.
- Like other underground natural resources, gas tends to produce perverse political effects in countries with weak social contracts between the rulers and the ruled. In particular, the income generated from the sale of natural gas can be used to strengthen the power and assets of those who own the state, rather than to finance public services and economic development.