These are unstable times for gas supplies in Europe. To crisis with Russia, the main supplier of the Old Continent, diplomatic tensions with Algeria are now added, on which Spain depends to a great extent. Faced with the declared objective of the European Union to stop depending on Russian hydrocarbons, many voices once again dusted off a word that had already been forgotten: Midcat.
This is a gas pipeline project that would connect Spain with France through Catalonia and that would double the current gas transport capacity between the two countries. The works began in 2010, but the infrastructure ran aground and was definitively buried in 2019 after the joint opinion of the Spanish CNMC and its French equivalent and little interest from Paris. Now, the Spanish Government once again claims it as a strategic connection for Europe, since it would allow countries highly dependent on Russia such as Germany to resort to the regasification power of Spain, and at the same time it would reduce the status of “energy island” of the Iberian Peninsula.
The Midcat was conceived as an extension of the Medgaz gas pipeline, which connects the Algerian coast with Almería and runs along the entire Mediterranean coast until stopping at Hostalric (Girona), from where the failed connection with Barbaira, on the other side of the Pyrenees, was to start. It is an infrastructure of vital importance for Spain, which imports 40% of its gas from Algeriaand even more so since the Algerian Government closed the tap, due to its bad relationship with Rabat, of the only other gas pipeline that linked it to our country: the Maghreb-Europe, which passed through Morocco and ended on the Cadiz coast.
Although Moncloa and various analysts consulted are committed to giving a new impetus to the extension of this pipeline to France, conditions have changed since the historic change of position of the Government of Pedro Sánchez on Western Sahara. Spanish support for the autonomy proposal presented by Morocco in 2007 has not only unleashed a crisis with its partners and the opposition, but also with Algiers, which has called its ambassador in Madrid for consultations.
A gas pipeline to link the Spanish “energy island” to Europe
Those who defend the Midcat remember the poor connection between Spain and the rest of Europe. “It would make sense to take it back, because the connection we have with France and therefore with Central Europe is very limited. And perhaps this is the way that Central Europe could take advantage of Spain’s brutal regasification capacity,” Paco Valverde, head of renewables at the Menta Energía consultancy, told RTVE.es.
Precisely, given this status as an “energy island”, Spain has been committed for years to building regasification plants, which convert the liquefied gas that arrives by ship from a highly diversified range of sources into natural gas – from the United States to Nigeria, passing through Taste-. It has six operations, more than any other EU countrysomething that does not go unnoticed in Brussels, in full search for alternatives to Russian gas.
“Spain can play an important role in the supply” Europe’s energy sector, said the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during her last visit to Madrid. Now Sánchez wants to take advantage of this opportunity and insists on promoting the gas pipeline through Catalonia, which would not only transport Algerian gas but also the one that comes by ship in a liquid state and is converted back into gas in plants such as Barcelona, Sagunto or Bilbao. He is also strongly supported by other actors, such as the Catalan employers’ organization Foment del Treball.
Sánchez claimed at the European summit in Versailles on March 10 that “it is time” to launch interconnections from Spain of gais green hydrogen financed by Brussels. “It is unacceptable that the Iberian Peninsula is an energy island,” he insisted.
Along these lines was a recent report by the International Energy Agency, which stated that “the limited connection between Spain and France constrains the use of regasification capacity to import to other countries”.
At the moment, Spain only has two gas pipelines that cross the Pyrenees: one in Irún, in the Basque Country, and another in Larrau, in Navarra. Both have limited capacity, and it would be “impossible” to increase it to allow a large flow of gas from Algeria to Europe, since it is designed only to exchange gas with the south of France, according to Juan Puertas, representative of the College of Engineers of Catalonia. On the other hand, the Midcat, redesigned and with “the help of the Marseille liquefied natural gas plant, could supply a quarter of Germany’s demand,” he tells TVE.
“France has put obstacles so that the interconnection was anecdotal”
The Midcat project – named after the union of the French Midi region and Catalonia – began construction on its Spanish side, the most advanced, in 2010, promoted by the Spanish gas company Enagás and the French company Teréga. It could transport 7.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year in both directions, which it would double the capacity of the current connection with France. In the Spanish section, 107 kilometers remain to be built to Figueres, at a cost of 151.6 million euros, while from this French town to Barbaira it is necessary to install 120 kilometers of pipes with a value of 290 million euros.
However, he never had a similar enthusiasm on the other side of the Pyrenees. “Spain is an energetic island because France has put all the possible obstacles so that the interconnection was anecdotal”assures Álvaro Rodríguez, an energy analyst at the IMF business school, who points out those who, for him, are to blame for this situation:
“Spain has an electricity production capacity of more than 100 gigawatts, our peak consumption never exceeds 45, and the connection with France is three. That has no head or tail, and benefits the lobby French nuclear power and the Spanish oligopoly”. On Thursday, the Minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, asked France to prepare the project for two future electrical interconnections between the two countries through the Pyrenees this year, which would be added to the submarine line to be built through the Bay of Biscay.
“Spain is an energy island because France has put all the possible obstacles so that the interconnection was anecdotal“
Puertas agrees with him, stating that “the project was interrupted in 2012 because there was no interest on the part of French traders to acquire Spanish gas.” He is convinced that “it can be reactivated” so that it works in just two or three years, since the Catalan section is “practically finished”, with the land expropriated. The French part is slower: environmental impact studies and land expropriation are still pending.
Government calculations are less optimistic. riverbank he estimated that it would take five or six years to build and insisted on the need for reciprocal interest on the part of France. “It would not make sense to make an effort on our part and for it to be blocked in the Pyrenees,” he said on Thursday. Rodríguez, for his part, believes that the project would take so long to get under way that “When it becomes reality, it will no longer be necessary” by the maturity of the expansion of renewables, as with many of the combined cycle plants that were built at the beginning of the century and that have never been put into operation.
The project has also received harsh criticism from environmentalists. In a 2018 report, Ecologists in Action, Friends of the Earth and other organizations denounced that opening a new and expensive gas project “is in conflict with the Paris Agreement” to reduce emissions. “It is a project promoted by two private companies that seek to obtain massive public subsidies and obtain profit while consumers will have to bear the economic infeasibility,” they criticized. Local associations and mayors also lamented the damage to the territory that it would cause
Another recent study, by the think tanks E3G, Ember and Bellona, points out that “the construction of new gas infrastructures is not necessary”, since the current ones, especially the regasification plants, are already sufficient to replace Russian gas by 2025.
The alternatives: green hydrogen and gas pipeline through Italy
The Midcat was touched to death with two reports from the Spanish and French regulatory committees, which considered that it was a project did not meet “the needs of the market” nor was it “sufficiently mature to be considered in a cross-border cost allocation“. Another independent study of the European Commission, in 2017, carried out by the consulting firm Pöyry, also questioned the profitability of the infrastructure and questioned whether it would serve to guarantee European energy security, since the flow of gas would only occur from France to Spain. . It would only be useful, he stressed, if there was a big drop in supply from Algeria.
“It is possible that this project will be resumed, but it is not the most profitable investment in the world,” warns Pedro Fresco, general director of Ecological Transition of the Valencian Generalitat and an energy expert. “Obviously it is an investment that will have a short useful life, because we must not forget that the horizon is that in 2050 we will practically not be consuming gas”, he adds.
““Obviously it is an investment that is going to have a short useful life, because we must not forget that the horizon is that in 2050 we will practically not be consuming gas”“
Precisely, the cost and profitability is one of the great obstacles of the project. Ribera pointed out that it had to be Brussels that financed the infrastructure: “It would have to be financed as a project of European interest, to guarantee the security of supply for our neighbors in northern Europe, and not by Spanish gas consumers”. The Midcat was considered an Important Project of Common Interest by the EU in 2013, 2015 and 2017, which facilitated the European funding and streamlined procedures, but it fell off the list in 2019.
The other impediment to an infrastructure of this caliber is its obsolescence caused by the transition to clean energy. In that sense, Ribera opened the door to transporting green hydrogen –produced from renewables-. “If we do it, it would have to be thinking about the future, that it can transport hydrogen,” he agrees for the Fresco part of him.
Given the blocking of the project, an alternative has begun to be proposed that would connect Spain with Italy through an underwater gas pipeline. The gas company Snam recently assured that it was starting a feasibility study for such an infrastructure if Midcat does not go ahead. In the short term, they have also proposed a “virtual gas pipeline” that will transfer liquefied natural gas from Spain to the port of Panigaglia, in Liguria, by means of small boats.