Bracing for winter, Europe clings to natural gas

Chief Europe Correspondent

August is the time to hit the beach in Europe, but for many the focus is on something cooler: Winter is coming.

The threat of a full natural gas cutoff from Russia, historically the European Union’s main supplier, is leaving the bloc scrambling to fill up its storage sites and ration gas use to ensure people don’t freeze during the cold season and industries don’t have to shut down.

Germany is particularly vulnerable because it was receiving more than half of its gas from Russia before the war.

German authorities are putting a huge onus on its citizens to reduce individual energy consumption with instructions that would be political suicide in the United States.

The government laid out a plan last month that, among others, mandates unused office spaces, hallways and storage rooms no longer be heated. The measures include a ban on heating swimming pools in private homes and suspending minimum temperature requirements for apartment rental contracts.

A summer nationwide information campaign instructs citizens to take shorter showers. The German city of Hanover has turned off the heating and switched to cold showers in all public buildings.

On Tuesday, the state of Bavaria agreed to disallow heating in bathrooms in public offices during winter and instructed officials to avoid business trips.

The federal government recently had to bail out one of its biggest utilities due to severely reduced Russian gas imports.

It’s also considering extending the life of Germany’s three remaining nuclear plants—an unimaginable move just weeks ago in a country adamant about dropping nuclear.

Other nations are following suit.

Spain’s government this week ordered all businesses to limit their temperatures and told shops to turn their lights off at night. Belgium agreed last month to also keep open some nuclear reactors.

Only a couple of months ago the EU boasted its plan to shed quickly over the coming years its dependence on Russian gas, a fuel it relies heavily on for home heating and industrial uses.

But short-term reality is kicking in now, and countries are clinging to the dwindling supplies they are getting, accusing Moscow of using energy as a political weapon since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“There is a clear pattern of Russian behaviour to create uncertainty, increase prices and undermine the EU unity,” Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said at the end of July. “We know that gas deliveries can stop any moment.”

Russia supplied 40% of the EU’s gas needs before it invaded Ukraine. Supplies are now a third of what they were a year ago.

Earlier this summer, Moscow reduced gas flows further via Nord Stream 1, a pipeline from Russia to Germany that runs under the Baltic Sea.

The move is part of a weekslong geopolitical blame game ostensibly focused on turbine maintenance that is stoking anxiety in Europe. A dozen EU countries have already seen their Russian gas supply cut off or reduced.

An EU-wide gas savings plan kicked in Aug. 1, calling on member countries to reduce their gas consumption by 15% until the end of March to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

This corresponds to a gap of 45 billion cubic meters in case of a full cutoff and a cold winter, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. The gap would be 30 bcm during an average winter.

The bloc’s economy, already plagued by high energy prices, could shrink by up to 1.5% of GDP if Russia were to cut gas flows, according to the Commission.

But the EU’s gas-saving plan is voluntary and replete with exemptions—the result of nationalistic tendencies and political pushback from Southern Europe, which is less dependent on Russian gas.

This could leave the goal of staying warm this winter up to political will—and luck that winter isn’t too cold.

If all of the deal’s carve-outs were used, which includes exemptions for island states or countries with limited gas connections, the EU could get through an average winter, the Commission said. A cold winter would require more severe measures. The EU’s gas savings plan could become mandatory under several emergency scenarios.

EU officials have also been working hard to clinch new deals with other gas-exporting countries, including the United States, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Qatar and Nigeria.

But the head of the International Energy Agency says that’s not sufficient.

“It is categorically not enough to just rely on gas from non-Russian sources,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director said in July. “These supplies are simply not available in the volumes required to substitute for missing deliveries from Russia.”

The EU’s gas storage sites are 69.3% filled and countries need to reach at least 80% by November 1 to protect against the threat of Russia cutting supplies.

“Solidarity measures are needed now if the continent’s gas balance is not to be left to chance,” consultancy Wood Mackenzie said.