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Analysis: Poland's energy ambitions

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by Stefan Nicola
Berlin (UPI) Sep 10, 2007
Poland is one of the least energy import dependent countries in Eastern Europe, but among the fiercest when it comes to its desire to dominate energy security policy in Europe.

"Poland sees itself as a precursor in Europe when it comes to energy policy," Kai-Olaf Lang, Poland expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told United Press International in a telephone interview. "That energy policy is first and foremost Russia policy, and thus security policy."

Poland, the largest country in Eastern Europe, has been a democracy since 1989 and a member of the European Union since 2004. The twin brothers Kaczynski -- Jaroslav, the prime minister, and Lech, the president -- lead the country, which is in political turmoil after Parliament dissolved itself and set new elections for late October.

Those elections, however, will likely not oust the Kaczynskis, who rose to power in late 2005 and made energy a top policy priority -- a policy that is dominated by a deep mistrust toward Russia.

Warsaw has in the past tried several times to minimize Russian energy influence in Europe: It sided with Ukraine when its government rowed with Moscow over a gas price raise; it vetoed a compromise over a new EU-Russian partnership proposal because of a meat row and Russia's unwillingness to sign the Energy Charter; it fiercely protested after Germany and Russia announced they would build a natural gas pipeline stretching under the Baltic Sea, bypassing traditional transit country Poland and ridding it of transit fees.

While energy security is a national affair in Poland, the country should not have to worry as much as some of its neighbors, however.

"Compared to other states in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, Poland is in a rather comfortable energy security position," said Lang, who has recently published an extensive study on Poland's energy policy.

The country's energy mix is dominated by coal, of which Poland owns vast resources and mines some 16 million tons a year; those resources are enough to generate more than 90 percent of its electricity and more than 80 percent of its heat -- which makes Poland far less dependent on oil and gas imports than other countries in Europe.

While Poland buys virtually all its oil needs (18 million tons a year) from Russia, experts and the government in Warsaw aren't worried: Poland has a seaport oil terminal in Gdansk that can handle crude deliveries of more than 30 million tons a year; if supply through the Russian-built Druzhba pipeline should fail, Polish companies are able to relay deliveries there -- from Russia or other suppliers.

"Poland can quickly rely on alternative supply forms if a problem with Russia arises," Lang said.

When it comes to gas, Poland is less flexible: Its gas consumption has steadily increased over the past years, from 9.5 billion cubic meters in 1996 to 13 billion in 2004. A third of that need is met with domestic resources -- some 4.3 billion cubic meters a year. The rest is imported from Russia (the country's biggest supplier) and Central Asia (through Russian-controlled supplier RosUkrEnergo).

Poland, however, has a new energy security project in the pipeline that could further reduce dependency on gas imports.

Warsaw is weighing building an LNG gas terminal in Swinoujscie, a port city located at the northwestern tip of Poland's Baltic Sea coast.

"The terminal is supposed be ready in 2011 and have a capacity of 5 billion to ultimately 7.5 billion cubic meters of gas," Lang told UPI. "This terminal would mean a quantum leap for Polish energy security."

The Kaczynskis will nevertheless continue to try to influence energy policy in the EU, Lang wrote. The expert mentions three priorities Warsaw wants to communicate to Brussels:

-- The need to make "solidarity" the overlaying of a new European energy strategy.

-- The need to put energy security atop the strategy list (the European Commission in its latest energy policy strategy paper mentioned the need to equally balance sustainability, market competitiveness and security of supply; Poland believes the security aspect should dominate the other two).

-- The need that Poland takes part in shaping Europe's energy relationship with Russia.

Warsaw, however, has trouble convincing Brussels after it tried to torpedo other EU decisions of the past months in order to elevate its standing, most notably the new voting system, propagated by former EU presidency country Germany.

Germany, Europe's largest economy and certainly with a big say when it comes to its energy policy, has a different view of Russia, Lang said, and thus future conflicts may very well arise.

"Germany wants energy security with Russia while Poland wants to be secure from Russia," he said.

Poland needs to team up with other countries to push through its energy security goals, he added.

"Warsaw can only achieve something if it forms alliances with other Eastern European states and the Baltics and maybe the Scandinavian countries," he said. "If they're alone, they will not be heard."

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