WILL THEY PLAY NABUCCO? (Suoneranno il Nabucco?)

A raft of transit agreements to be signed on Monday by the architects of the planned Nabucco natural gas pipeline will give some much-needed shape to the pipeline which has been delayed due to infighting.

But critics of the 7.9 billion euro ($11 billion) pipeline, which plans to pump 31 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe by 2014, say the meeting will do little to stop a Russian-backed pipeline from gaining ground on the Europe-backed project.

The agreement will be signed by five members of the six-country Nabucco consortium through which the pipeline is planned to run. They are: Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. The sixth country, Germany, does not have a transit role.

The five transit countries are likely to agree on a series of legally binding conditions as well as agree on where the pipeline will begin. Turkey has demanded that the line start near Ankara, but other possibilities include Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Security for the pipeline will also be ironed out in the agreement, an important condition for easternmost Nabucco member Turkey, which will be responsible for preventing attacks on the pipeline. Last year the ethnic separatist group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) carried out an attack on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, halting supplies.

One of the thorniest issues that has not yet been worked out is a demand from the Turkish side for the right to use 15 percent of its gas for domestic use or for re-export. That issue will all but certainly not be resolved in this agreement, but rather will be worked out separately.

Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has said Turkey will not back down from the demand, but the European Energy Commission has also stated that the demand is unacceptable. Analysts say the demand makes the pipeline commercially unfeasible as supply countries will be unwilling to sell discounted gas to Turkey.

Nabucco was conceived as a way to decrease Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas after Moscow turned off its gas to Ukraine in 2006 in what was seen at the time as a political conflict. Fear of future suppliers using energy as a political weapon strengthened the case for the Nabucco.

Monday's agreements, although they will not address the more divisive issues, will most likely boost investor sentiment in the plan, which is suffering due to the economic global downturn and lack of gas throughput supplies for the line.

Nabucco may also gain more seriousness in the eyes of gas suppliers. "It might come as a good sign for countries that will be potential suppliers, giving them an indication that Nabucco is more serious than they might have thought," said Ana Jelenkovic at Eurasia Group.

Working out Turkey's 15 percent demands, however, would help put the Nabucco substantially ahead of the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline in that the Nabucco Consortium could then begin work on the open season, when firms buy up portions of the pipeline's capacity for consumers.

The South Stream, which has increased its capacity expectations to 63 billion cubic metres, edged ahead of Nabucco late last month when gas-producer Azerbaijan said it would give Russia priority in buying gas when the second phase of its Shakh-Deniz gas production project came online.

No concrete deals have yet been signed for Nabucco, and none are expected to be signed until all transit details are worked out among its members. A lack of supply agreements have hampered political will and financing, analysts say.

The Nabucco Consortium has mentioned Egypt, Azerbaijan and possibly Russia and Turkmenistan as sources for gas. Iran can participate in the pipeline if Washington normalises relations with Tehran, the U.S. Secretary of State's Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy said earlier this year.

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