11/29/2011 06:45

Exclusive: Energy Minister Papakonstantinou first member of new Athens gov’t to visit.
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The new government in Athens could open a pipeline to export natural gas from countries including Israel to destinations in northern Europe, as Greece seeks to become a regional center for the transit of this energy source.

“We are trying to make Greece the hub for gas transit to northern European countries either via Italy or through the Balkans,” Greece’s environment, energy and climate change minister stressed to The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview on Monday morning in Jerusalem.

The minister, Giorgos Papakonstantinou, was the first Greek official to visit Israel since the country’s November 11 formation of a new coalition unity government headed by interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos.

As two strong democratic powers in an ever-developing Mediterranean region, Israel and Greece must continue its path to forge new partnerships, particularly in the natural gas and renewable energy sectors, he said.

In that context, the discussions with Israel are ongoing about the possibility to of bringing in Israeli gas, and this has been discussed at the high level in the past between the two prime ministers.

Currently Greece does not have a wealth of its own proven oil or gas reserves, aside from some oil pumped out of the north for the past years, but this may be due to the fact that explorations have not occurred for quite a while, according to Papakonstantinou.

Recently, however, the government put out tenders for seismic surveys on the west coast of the mainland and the south of Crete, he explained.

“The scientific evidence that we have shows that there are reserves in both places – we have to see how large these reserves are,” he said, noting that these reserves should help “restore some of the balance and improve energy self-sufficiency in Greece” and also provide some exploration opportunities to international, and perhaps Israeli, companies.

While this process was only launched about six months ago, and probably won’t be in full-swing until next year, it has raised Greek “ambitions and hopes,” Papakonstantinou noted.

Also in the Mediterranean natural gas realm, the Greek minister stressed that cooperation with neighboring Turkey is vital to his country, in order, for example, to bring gas from the Caspian Sea to northern Europe. He did not, however, find any truth in recent Turkish claims that Israeli and Cypriot natural gas drilling is illegal.

“We believe very much that every country should be allowed and able to do its explorations within the context of national and international and its legal rights. And clearly Cyprus and Israel are in that position,” he said.

After serving a year-and-ahalf as finance minister, Papakonstantinou took the position of environment, energy and climate change minister in June 2011, with hopes of bringing Greece up to speed in a “very fast-moving sector in both conventional energy and renewables,” investing in protecting the environment and creating jobs in the process, he said.

And in all of these areas, Papakonstantinou sees Israel as a potentially integral partner.

“Our energy mix is a little like Israel’s, dependent primarily on traditional energy sources, mostly coal and increasingly gas,” he told the Post. “But for the last few years there has been a very determined move to change the mix and move to renewable energy.”

For Greece, the main renewable energy source is currently wind, but solar photovoltaics have the most rapid growth – while since 2009, the number of renewable energy installations total has doubled throughout the country, according to Papakonstantinou.

“We have set a target of 20 percent [renewable energy] for 2020,” he said. “In terms of the actual permits currently granted, we have already reached the target but not in terms of installations – installations are still lagging behind, mostly because of difficulty of financing at the moment.”

Following the interview with the Post, Papakonstantinou was set to meet with both National Infrastructure Minister Dr. Uzi Landau and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, to discuss Greece’s latest projects in both the energy and environmental sectors and potential for cooperation with both ministries.

One such program is the Helius Project, in which Greece aims to become an outlet for transporting solar energy generated to northern Europe, a project that could also offer Israelis an opportunity to transfer their own energy or receive Greek solar energy in the future, he explained.

“[In Israel] there is a lot of technology, but you have less potential in terms of land available to be able to have large installations,” Papakonstantinou said.

Other important issues of infrastructural and environmental collaboration that Papakonstantinou said he intends to discuss with the Israeli ministers include water management, treatment and desalination, as well as waste disposal and management.

“We [talked] this morning with some very interesting Israeli companies that have solutions for these things. We are in the process at the moment in Greece – with a lot of projects at the municipal level and in large cities – to improve water management,” he said.

Natural gas – which Israel is currently developing enormous quantities of in the Mediterranean Sea – is another potential source of partnership.

“There’s been a lot of discussion on looking at the technical and financial feasibility for pumping Israeli gas to Greece,” Papakonstantinou said. At the same time, he stressed, there are also ongoing discussions about how to bring natural gas into Europe from outside sources, such as the Caspian Sea.

While the ongoing economic crisis in Greece has forced the country to do some “fiscal tightening” in all sectors, Papakonstantinou said he hasn’t thus far had to make any environmental sacrifices, especially due to the EU funds that the country receives for such endeavors.

“This government, the government since 2009, has argued that green growth, green investments are one of the solutions for the country’s future,” he said. “This is why we’re making a big push to renewables and this is why… I have been pushing investments that are beneficial for the environment but at the same time create jobs.”

On that same track, the minister said he was confident, “without any doubt,” that Greece would remain in the euro-zone.

“There’s a clear understanding that the problems are systemic – they’re not just the problems of one country and if you cut off that one country you’d save the rest – we’re all in this together,” he said, “and solutions have to be found for the euro to be able to survive with all its current members.”

Echoing comments that Papademos made last week to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Papakonstantinou once again stressed the importance of continually enhanced cooperation with Israel and praised the “new page” that has been turned during the previous Greek administration and continuing into the current one.

“We have always had good ties with the Arab world and we have also been an important player in a region that is evolving very rapidly,” Papakonstantinou said. “Israel has an absolutely critical role to play in how the region evolves.”