President Vladimir Putin said Friday that a storage facility for Russian natural gas could be built in Belgium to make it a hub for gas exports to Europe.
Putin told visiting Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt that Belgium's gas pipeline network linking it to other EU nations would make it a good location for a prospective natural gas storage facility.
"We may implement a big project that would benefit not only our nations, but all of Europe: building a big gas storage facility that would allow for the shipment of gas to other nations, including Britain, using European underwater pipelines originating in Belgium,"
He did not elaborate on details of the project in his opening remarks, which were carried by Russian state television.
Verhofstadt, who said he visited the offices of state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom in the morning, said Belgium was ready to strengthen relations with Russian companies, Russian news agencies reported.
He said Belgium could serve as a natural hub for gas transport and distribution, and that there were many prospects for cooperation, but did not comment specifically on the storage facility issue, according to the reports.
Last year, Gazprom approached the Belgian government about moving into the country's gas market as it opens up to competition, and voiced interest in working together with Belgian gas transport firm Fluxys SA to explore underground natural gas storage possibilities in northern Belgium, the AP reports.
Gazprom was mostly attracted by Belgium's gas transport links through Zeebrugge port, which would allow it to export to Britain among other nations.
Russia now supplies nearly half of Europe's gas needs, raising concern about its increasing clout, and has annoyed the European Union by refusing to ratify an energy charter that would broaden foreign access to its oil and gas deposits and export pipelines.
But Putin has said Moscow would not ratify the charter in its current form, saying that the EU nations pushing for access to Russia's energy deposits and long-distance gas pipelines must offer assets comparable in value.
Gazprom has pushed for access to European retail markets, sparking concern among some Europeans about its growing clout. Gazprom last year signed asset-swap deals with Germany's BASF and Italy's Eni SpA - deals that Putin hailed as models for other EU nations.