Home / Articles / In Reverse: Natural Gas and Politics in the Maghreb and Europe
Morocco made a surprising announcement last year, on July 5, 2022. The Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline, which had up until November 2021 transported billions of cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas every year from Algeria to Spain via Morocco, would be reversed. Instead, natural gas imported from North America via Spain would be sold to Morocco. For the first time since the inauguration of Mediterranean pipelines, natural gas would now flow south across the Mediterranean, from Europe to the Maghreb.
This switch comes at a critical moment for Maghreb-Europe energy politics. At a time when Europe would prefer to import more North African natural gas than ever before, due to the decline in imports of Russian natural gas, the critical infrastructure of Spanish liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals and the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline were being used to export natural gas from Europe. An escalating diplomatic crisis between Morocco, Algeria, and Spain—stemming from tensions between the two African neighbors—has threatened the European Union’s natural gas supply, creating more tension than ever before. With dim hopes of reconciliation, the nations must investigate new possibilities for natural gas imports, exports, and production.
Natural Gas in the Maghreb
Morocco’s need to import natural gas has been a long-standing problem. Morocco, unlike most of its North African neighbors, has only limited domestic natural gas or oil production. The nation only has an estimated 500 million cubic meters (mcm) of natural gas reserves, and it only produced 56 mcm in 2012. Morocco has substantial reserves of oil shale (ranking sixth worldwide). However, these reserves are uneconomical to exploit, as the Moroccan government concluded in the late 1980s.
Domestic oil and gas development in Morocco has also been hindered by the Talstint Affair. In 2000, the newly-crowned King Muhammed VI announced the discovery of major oil and natural gas deposits near the town of Talsint through a company backed by his cousin. These reserves were fictitious, never to be found, leading to a years-long battle in court and an embarrassing political scandal. Since then, the Moroccan government has been cautious with new energy discoveries. Indeed, several recent “discoveries” have proven illusory, such as an announcement coming from Europa Oil and Gas, a British company, of over a billion barrels of oil offshore of Agadir in 2021, which was deemed “phantom” by the Association of Spanish Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists. The Moroccan government has felt vindicated in its geoeconomic conservatism.
Algeria, by contrast, has large oil and natural gas reserves. The nation boasts the tenth-largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world, and is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of natural gas. Most of Algeria’s natural gas extraction is from the Hassi R’Mel field, which is estimated to contain over 2.5 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. The field’s maximum production capacity is over 100 bcm/yr, serving as the origin of all Algerian trans-Mediterranean natural gas pipelines. The Algerian natural gas industry has been dominated since independence by the state-owned Sonatrach corporation, which operates Hassi R’Mel. Natural gas extraction and export in Algeria are as much influenced by the geopolitical interests of the Algerian state as it is by market influences.
The Maghreb and the European Union are connected by three gas pipelines across the Mediterranean (a fourth, Greenstream, connects Italy and Libya). The oldest and largest of these pipelines is the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline, connecting Algeria, Tunisia, and Italy, with a capacity of 30 bcm/yr. It is followed by the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline which connects Algeria to Spain via Morocco and has a capacity of 12 bcm/yr and Medgaz, connecting Algeria directly to Spain at a capacity of 10.5 bcm/yr.
The Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline opened in 1996 with a twenty-five-year contract. Morocco was entitled to transit fees that, by 2021, reached 1 bcm/yr of natural gas from Algeria. Additionally, Morocco purchased over 200 mcm/yr of supplemental natural gas from Algeria via the pipeline. This natural gas was mainly used to power the Tahaddart and Aïn Béni Mathar power plants, which, by 2021, represented one-sixth of all Moroccan electricity production capacity. This guarantee of cheap natural gas imports enabled Morocco to expand electricity production via natural gas without corresponding expansions of domestic natural gas production or the creation of alternative infrastructure for natural gas imports.
However, only four years after the opening of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline, Algeria and Spain began planning a pipeline that would connect their countries directly, without any transit through Morocco. Such a pipeline would allow for exporting gas without transit fees or political concessions to Morocco. This pipeline became the Medgaz Pipeline, which began operating in 2011 and was expanded to its current capacity in 2021, shortly before the closing of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline. The timing was not coincidental; the expansion meant that the Medgaz Pipeline could export almost as much natural gas as the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline and could thus replace it.
The European Union, Russian Gas, and the Maghreb
The European Union needs natural gas from the Maghreb more than ever before. In 2021, the European Union imported 155 bcm/yr of natural gas (combined piped and LNG) from Russia. Since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, this natural gas supply has been thrown into question. In addition to concerns about financially supporting Russia, the war has impacted natural gas import infrastructure. Explosions of unknown origin severely damaged the Nord Stream pipelines and connectors between Russia and Germany. Other natural gas pipelines, connecting the European Union and Russia and passing through active conflict zones in Ukraine, may be targeted.
Natural gas from the Maghreb seems to be a suitable alternative to Russian natural gas. Unlike new gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Western Mediterranean, there is sophisticated, standing pipeline infrastructure. When the pipelines connecting the Maghreb and Europe are combined, they are smaller but comparable in capacity to the Nord Stream counterparts. Nor are they fully utilized, as demonstrated by a recent agreement between Italy and Algeria to increase natural gas exports by almost 50 percent through the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline.
The International Energy Agency, as part of its ten-point plan to transition Europe away from Russian natural gas, called for Europe to increase imports from alternative sources by 30 bcm /yr. No other region or country is as well-positioned as the Maghreb to serve as this source. The Maghreb has large natural reserves, sufficient extraction infrastructure, and well-established natural gas pipelines. However, the region holds one major caveat: political complications.
The Western Sahara and the Escalation of Morocco-Algeria Tensions
These geoeconomic developments are occurring at a nadir for Algerian-Moroccan diplomatic relations, which, since their respective independence from France in 1962 and 1956, have been frosty. The two nations fought an undeclared war in 1963. Moreover, since 1975, the pair have bitterly contested the fate of the Western Sahara. Morocco claims the Western Sahara as an integral part of their nation and administers two-thirds of the former Spanish colony. Algeria supports the Polisario Front, a pro-independence movement that administers the other third. Spain has at different times supported both the Moroccans and the Algerians in the conflict, and has faced its own tensions with Morocco over the status of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves surrounded by the Moroccan mainland. These trilateral diplomatic tensions eased somewhat by the end of the 20th century. Morocco, Algeria, and Spain agreed to the joint construction and operation of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline. This pipeline developed into a boon for all three nations. Algeria gained the ability to export lucrative natural gas directly to Spain, Morocco secured a steady source of natural gas for electricity, and Spain received plentiful natural gas directly from Algeria.
2021 Escalation in Tensions and Closure of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline
Tensions between Morocco and Algeria rose dramatically in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, Morocco secured American support for its position in the Western Sahara, in exchange for normalization of relations with Israel. Algeria, as both an opponent of Israel and a supporter of the Polisario Front, responded by increasing rhetorical and diplomatic support to the Polisario Front. Morocco retaliated by publicly supporting demands for Amazigh (Berber) autonomy in Algeria. Algeria withdrew its ambassador from Morocco, formally cutting diplomatic ties to the nation that year. The twenty-five-year agreement between Morocco and Algeria for operating the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline expired in October of 2021, and was, ultimately, not renewed. Moroccan leaders may have believed they could count on geopolitical pressure to renew the agreement from the European Union (especially Spain and Portugal) and the United States, but no such pressure came. Algeria assured Spain that natural gas exports would continue through the Medgaz pipeline. The United States under the new Biden administration was less interested in supporting a hardline Moroccan position in the Western Sahara than the Trump administration had been. On November 1, 2021, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline ceased operations.
Gas Politics Lead to a Surprising Reversal
The closure of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline was a severe blow to Moroccan energy production. At the time of the closure, 17 percent of all Moroccan electricity generation depended on the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline. This actually represented a decline in reliance on Algerian natural gas; in 2014, that figure was 23 percent. In 2014, when that figure was 23 percent, the International Energy Agency warned that “Morocco is at very high risk in case of a disruption of Algerian supply.”
The Moroccan government was forced to shut down natural gas electricity generation after imports from Algeria ceased. To restart, they needed a new source of natural gas. Morocco does not possess any LNG terminals, and apart from the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline, does not possess any natural gas pipelines. In July 2022, Morocco found a solution. The Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline would be reversed, and natural gas would be imported from North American suppliers via Spain’s LNG terminal. Spanish LNG imports were initially limited, but by June of 2023, these imports had reached almost 90 percent of what Morocco previously imported from Algeria.
How could Spain export natural gas when Europe at-large is suffering from the decline of Russian natural gas exports? The answer lies with inter-European natural gas pipelines. As the International Energy Agency notes, “there is limited interconnection capacity in some areas, notably from Spain to France which constrains the use of Spanish regasification capacity for imports to other European countries.” The Iberian natural gas market, consisting of only Spain and Portugal, has merely one natural gas connection to the rest of Europe, VIP Pirineos. Thus, Spain has excess capacity at its LNG terminal, which can be used to import North American LNG and export it to Morocco.
Algerian Retaliation Against Spain and Turn Towards Italy
In July of 2022, Spain assured Algeria that no Algerian natural gas would be rerouted to Morocco. Nonetheless, coming on the heels of Spain’s announcement in March 2022 that it supported Morocco’s position in the Western Sahara, Algeria interpreted the announcement as broader Spanish support for Morocco over Algeria. While not formally cutting exports, Algeria is estimated to have reduced natural gas exports to Spain by about 25 percent, and exports of all goods by 87 percent. This coincided with a formal agreement to increase natural gas exports to Italy by up to 50 percent. Algerian natural gas exports to the European Union were thus broadly unchanged despite the tension, but were reallocated to a country perceived as more friendly—as well as to a country better integrated into the European natural gas network.
Present Situation and Prospects for the Future
Alternate Moroccan Electricity Production
Since the onset of the crisis, Morocco has moved away from its reluctance toward domestic natural gas development. Several domestic natural gas developments are now underway. Most promising is the offshore development of Anchois near Larache, a town on Morocco’s north Atlantic coast, estimated to have as much as 40 bcm of natural gas. As a sign of the new spirit of the Moroccan government to natural gas development, the government owns a 25 percent stake in the project, agreeing to use portions of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline to transport natural gas from the development. It is expected to begin production in 2024–2025, though it remains to be seen if that timetable can be met, or if the project will even be economically viable when it is completed. If the project is completed, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline may see yet another chapter in its life: from a symbol of newfound Moroccan-Algerian rapprochement to herald of the breakdown of those relations, and now witness to the dawn of domestic natural gas production in Morocco.
Beyond natural gas production, Morocco has also attempted a pivot to renewable energy. In 2009, the Moroccan government adopted ambitious goals for renewable energy usage. The International Energy Agency estimated that if this project was completed on schedule by 2020, renewable energy would represent 25 percent of total electricity production, up from 8.7 percent in 2014, and 60 percent of power demand. However, the program was not fully completed on schedule. In 2022, Morocco had a total renewable production capacity of only 20 percent. Nonetheless, this was a significant shift. Major solar and wind projects are still under construction, and the Moroccan government has signaled that they will continue to pursue their goals and even export renewable electricity to Europe. In 2023, Moroccan government officials announced a new goal of 52 percent total renewable electricity production by 2030. Even if that goal is not reached, it seems realistic that Morocco will continue to grow its renewable energy sector over the coming years.
The Moroccan transition to green energy is not for purely environmental reasons. As the recent crisis shows, Morocco can depend neither on natural gas from its chief rival for electricity production nor on North American natural gas imported through Spain while Europe undergoes its own natural gas shock. Renewable energy offers a geopolitically safe alternative. The more renewable infrastructure is developed in Morocco, the less likely Morocco will seek to reconcile with Algeria and restart the use of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline.
Future Prospects of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline
Neither Algeria nor Morocco seems eager to re-engage in a diplomatic process with their rival that might lead to a re-opening. While King Muhammed VI of Morocco publicly offered to reconcile in his 2022 Speech from the Throne, the proposal seemed targeted at foreign allies and international organizations rather than at Algeria. Moroccan and Algerian state presses do not offer any signs of serious engagement. Instead Maghreb Arabe Presse (the Moroccan state press) and Algérie Presse Service (their Algerian counterpart) trade accusations of terrorism, drug smuggling, and violating international law. In the absence of any desire from either Algeria or Morocco to make the necessary concessions to end their dispute, the re-opening of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline is unlikely unless a foreign power pressures one side. Potential intermediaries are the United States, a longstanding ally of Morocco; Russia, a longstanding ally of Algeria; and the European Union, which has complicated and long relationships with both nations. Nonetheless, none of those powers are especially inclined to push for reconciliation. The United States has poor relations with Algeria due to American support for Morocco and Israel. Russia has no incentive to broker a settlement that would weaken its own natural gas leverage over Europe. The interests of the European Union in reconciliation remain weaker than one might suspect. Algeria shifting natural gas exports from Spain to Italy is actually beneficial to the European Union, given that Italy is far better integrated in the European network of natural gas pipelines. Additionally, recent European Union support for the Moroccan position in the Western Sahara has damaged their relationship with Algeria. Alternative natural gas sources are also opening up in the Eastern Mediterranean. The European Union seems content with the present situation, even though they would benefit from more natural gas exports from Algeria.
As Morocco builds both renewable and natural gas infrastructure, their need for Algerian natural gas will progressively decline. Concurrently, amid rising foreign support for their position in the Western Sahara, Morocco may take more aggressive steps in the region. This will only harden Algerian attitudes towards Morocco. Given the degradation of existing cross-border infrastructure, and in the absence of external pressure for reconciliation, the Moroccan-Algerian standoff will only continue. Barring an unexpected breakthrough, it is unlikely that the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline will return to its original use.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.