By Andreas Rinke, Belén Carreño and Michel Rose
PARIS/MADRID/BERLIN (Reuters) -French scepticism about a new gas pipeline across the Pyrenees highlights the competing visions for Europe's future energy mix as the continent urgently confronts a power crisis.
MidCat would be a third gas connection between France and Spain which its main backers, Madrid, Lisbon and more recently Berlin, say would help Europe reduce its Russian gas reliance.
But French President Emmanuel Macron has bluntly told his partners he sees no case for the multi-billion euro project.
France says MidCat would take too long to build to ease the looming energy crunch, be costly for France and go against ambitions to shift towards a green economy.
Officials in Spain and Germany, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters they believe that France is acting to protect its own ailing nuclear industry and fend off competition from Spain as a staging post for imported gas.
"Macron is under pressure at home from different groups, which don't like the pipeline project, the biggest is surely the nuclear power sector," a senior German government source said.
Spokespersons for the French energy ministry and EDF, which operates France's nuclear reactors, declined to comment.
Russia supplied 40% of Europe's gas before its invasion of Ukraine. Now, the region is scrambling to diversify its energy sources and MidCat was one of the projects EU ministers discussed at an emergency meeting in Brussels last week.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last month described the pipeline as "dramatically missing" from Europe's network, and last week raised the issue with Macron during a videocall.
Immediately afterwards, Macron said there was spare capacity in the pipes already linking Spain and France and MidCat could not be constructed swiftly enough to ease this winter's crisis.
"I do not understand what short-term problem this would solve," Macron said.
But while it may not provide immediate relief, Spain and Portugal say they have a solution with new gas routes and Madrid said it was ready to persuade Macron over MidCat.
Both have a large gas import capacity, with seven LNG terminals which convert tankers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) back into vapour form for use by industry and households if the infrastructure was in place for it to be piped to other countries such as Germany via France.
The French president has said he does not get all the fuss around MidCat, telling reporters last week: "I do not understand why we would jump around like Pyrenees goats on this topic".
This has led officials in Madrid to question if Macron may be angling for something in return, whether EU financing or backing for another project. And despite Macron's statements, French officials have left the door ajar to further discussions.
But in a sign of Spanish frustration, one source said France needed to demonstrate how it was contributing to European "energy solidarity", given half of its nuclear reactors are offline and it is relying on others to provide it with power.
Macron, however, has said that plans to reactivate a disused interconnector in eastern France so that Paris can pipe its own gas direct to Germany if required is evidence of its commitment.
It will allow France to deliver Germany up to 20 terawatt hours (TWh) of gas over the winter, roughly 2% of the gas needs of Europe's largest economy. A German official said the deal would not fix Germany's crunch but sent markets a message.
A joint proposal for a new trans-Pyrenees pipeline that would have a capacity to more than double the volume of gas piped between Spain and France was rejected by energy regulators for both countries in 2019.
The project was proposed by Terega, a gas grid company owned partly by Italy's Snam and EDF, and its Spanish counterpart Enagas at an estimated cost of 3 billion euros.
While the French regulator said the economic benefits would be tilted towards Spain, Madrid says Russian moves to cut gas supplies mean that the upside of MidCat would now extend far beyond Spain's own borders.
However, France has terminals on its Atlantic and Channel shores and it too wants a slice of LNG imports.
"France has (LNG terminals) that can process gas for the whole of Europe," a French government source said.
But longer term, France is betting heavily on reviving its troubled nuclear industry in its drive for carbon neutrality, and Paris has questioned MidCat's green credentials.
It would be at least the end of the decade before MidCat could be finished, French energy ministry officials say.
"By that point, the priority will be de-carbonising the economy, not using more gas. So we're somewhat puzzled," one ministry official told Reuters.
Berlin's primary interest in MidCat lies in green hydrogen rather than near-term LNG supplies, two senior German officials told Reuters.
Officials in Madrid and Berlin argue the pipeline could be repurposed to carry zero-emission hydrogen fuel made in the Sahara desert or elsewhere to Europe's industrial heartland.
But France would rather produce hydrogen locally than rely on imports. And it doubts the short-term feasibility, a French government source said, of Germany's vision for hydrogen, which is notoriously more difficult to transport than natural gas.
In the face of French resistance, Madrid and Berlin are exploring alternatives. Plan B could bypass France altogether and build a pipeline under the Mediterranean to Italy.
Madrid is accelerating a feasibility study for a pipeline from Barcelona to Livorno on the Tuscan coast. A Spanish official said it would take longer to build, but had the political backing of the outgoing Italian government.
A senior official from Spain's autonomous Catalonia region, a backer of MidCat, said a submarine pipeline to Italy would be more costly and carry greater environmental and other risks.
One problem is the flammability of hydrogen, which also leaks more easily than gas because its molecules are smaller, while it can make also some grades of steel brittle, the official said.
(Reporting by Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Belen Carreno in Madrid and Joan Faus in Barcelona; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Alexander Smith)