4th Dec 2023

EU backs Greek gas expansion in protected marine zone

  • Floating storage regasification units (FSRUs) are being installed accross the Mediterranean to increase imports from overseas gas (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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The European Commission has recently approved €106m in Greek state-aid for completing a regasification vessel — in the middle of a protected marine area.

According to the press statement, the project is "necessary and appropriate," but the commission does not mention the protected habitat where the floating gas unit will be placed.

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  • Much of the area surrounding Alexandroupolis has been scorched by wildfire in recent weeks. A floating regasification unit is set to come online at the beginning of 2024, located offshore marked by the flame icon (Photo: WWF Greece)

Alexandroupolis is a coastal town in Evros, eastern Greece, which was recently heavily damaged by a wildfire that burnt uncontrollably for over two weeks.

Its celebrated white beaches — usually crowded with tourists but now mostly empty — border the Thrace marine area, which was designated a Natura 2000 site in 2017 and is home to animals unique to the area.

There, an almost 300m-long floating storage regasification unit (FSRU) will be linked to land by a 28km-long undersea pipeline, connecting it to Romania, Serbia and the Black Sea.

It will have an overall delivery capacity of 5.5 billion cubic metres annually, about 10 percent of total Greek consumption.

Environmentalist appeal

The installation of the Alexandroupolis FSRU was approved to help secure and diversify energy supply in Greece and follows a €166m tranche of funding from the Greek state and European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) in 2021.

But in an appeal lodged at the end of September, WWF Greece and Greenpeace urged the Greek state to cancel the project, citing violation of national and EU environmental laws that limit or prohibit the processing of hazardous substances in protected areas.

The appeal argues that Greek authorities have not taken "into consideration the fact that the original conditions have changed significantly", most notably the designation of the entire area as a Natura 2000 site in 2017.

Liquified natural gas (LNG) sites are prohibited in Natura 2000 sites under Greek biodiversity conservation law.

But Greek authorities have extended an earlier 2013 gas permit, without updating it to the new situation, and applied it to the regasification vessel, which will start operations at the start of 2024.

Environmental studies dating from 2022 and 2023 omit the placement of the FSRU, and authorities have "ignored the obligation to inform and consult with the public," the text addressed to the ministry states.

Commission assessments made since the first tranche of funding in 2021 and again following the most recent grant approval also do not mention that the project is located in a Natura 2000 site.

The Athens government has not been sued yet but will "be taken to court" if it refuses to cancel the gas expansion, Theodota Nantsou, head of policy at WWF Greece, told EUobserver.

EU protection?

EU law itself does not offer decisive guidance.

Processing hazardous substances in protected areas is regulated under the EU's Seveso III directive, but LNG is not explicitly named as a prohibited substance.

And because the applicable legislation is labelled a 'directive', it is left to member states to implement 'reasonable' protection measures.

In a similar case in March, Italian gas giant Snam moved the regasification vessel Golar Tundra close to the centre of Piombino, a small Tuscan town in western Italy.

Heavy protests erupted almost immediately. But an appeal to the regional administrative court by the town's mayor, Francesco Ferrari — a member of Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni's radical rightwing party Fratelli d'Italia [Brothers of Italy] — was rejected.

In August, the EU Committee for Petitions also rejected a petition for the EU to intervene, stating that "no breach of EU law could be ascertained" and referred it back to national authorities.

The commission did not respond in time to a request for comment.

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