The geopolitics of pipelines between Russia and Europe could change dramatically if non-conventional oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea area were to be tapped, energy experts at a high-level conference said last week.
"The Black Sea resources are very big and could even replace gas supply from Russia," Dinu Patriciu, a Romanian oil man and investor who has already bought up large chunks of the country's maritime plateau, said at the "Black Sea energy and economic forum" in Bucharest on Friday (2 October).
The event brought together key politicians and business people and was organised by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, a left-leaning think-tank.
Mr. Patriciu's vision of the Black Sea becoming a "production region"—not just a transit route from the East to Western Europe—rests on the development of new resources such as "gas hydrates" and other "unconventional gas."
"I'm not a big fan of pipelines. They are long-term projects with low return in which politics are always involved," he explained, echoing the earlier remarks of US special envoy Richard Morningstar, who said that the EU's energy dependency problem cannot be solved by pipelines alone.
So far no major Western energy company has thrown its weight behind exploiting gas hydrates, also known as "flammable ice."
Once extracted from the seabed, the solid gas is easy to transport via containers and does not require expensive processing technologies such as in the case of liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is believed to be found in large amounts in the Black Sea.
If exploited locally, it would diminish EU states' reliance on Russian pipelines and their associated risk of politically-motivated cut-offs.
Unconventional gas can also be extracted from sand or turf. It is hard to put a figure on the extent of unconventional EU reserves. But the US already gets half its production form the new sources, while EU states such as the UK, Poland and Hungary are still at pilot project stage.
The EU gas market could be "revolutionised" if it made the transition from traditional gas to unconventional gas, said Glen Sansom, the general manager of Schlumberger, the world's largest oilfield services provider.
Emerging countries, which traditionally consume less energy than the highly-industrialised West, are also turning their attention to the sector.
As the Black Sea experts debated the issue of gas hydrates in Bucharest, China announced that it had found a deposits of unconventional gas worth 35 billion tonnes of oil in the Tibetan Plateau. The new gas could come online in about 10 years.
Energy experts in Bucharest also warned that young researchers and experts in gas extraction are becoming harder to recruit because of the "environmental awareness of the young generation."
Gas hydrates and other unconventional gas sources are less polluting than coal or other fossil fuels but still release significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The European Commission has an "awareness" of the potential new gas resources in Europe, Fabrizio Barbasso, the deputy director general of the commission's energy directorate, told EUobserver.
Unconventional gas could be a "great breakthrough" for Europe if proven economically viable, he said.