MADRID — Soaring energy prices and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have European leaders thinking hard about energy security, especially their decades-long reliance on Moscow for natural gas.
The crisis shows Europe’s vulnerability after years of limited progress in completing an ‘energy union’ – a 2015 vision to allow affordable gas and electricity to flow across borders while diversifying suppliers and achieving climate goals. While renewables like solar and wind grow slowly and coal and other fossil fuels are phased out, Europe still needs natural gas, and it depends on Russia to get it.
This was highlighted when Europe’s gas supply plummeted and prices soared partly because Russia sold less gas than normal, crushing households and businesses with rising costs. .
With gas reserves low and fears that a full-scale war could disrupt gas pipeline flows from Russia, the EU is focusing on supplying liquefied natural gas, or LNG, by ship from the states States, Qatar, Algeria and elsewhere until renewables catch up. Environmentalists fear that even a short-term priority could set back Europe’s goals to move away from fossil fuels.
Doubling the share of renewables would help reduce reliance on Russian gas, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said on Monday, but reiterated that energy security was key. An advisory group responsible for coordinating the security of the EU’s gas supply was meeting on Tuesday because “it is important that contingency plans are ready for the worst case scenario”, she said.
The EU27 is “on the right side for this winter” but is doing “everything possible to get rid of this dependency”, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said on Saturday at the Munich conference on Security. She accused Russian gas giant Gazprom “of deliberately trying to store and deliver as little as possible as prices and demand soar”.
Russia has fulfilled long-term contracts but failed to sell additional gas on the spot market, while pushing for Germany to approve its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a way to solve the gas shortage in Europe. Germany has suspended the pipeline certification process, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday, after Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine’s breakaway regions.
“We are aware of the low gas resources of European countries,” Russian Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov told a forum of gas producers in Qatar on Tuesday, according to an English translation provided. He said long-term gas contracts help reduce price volatility and that Russian energy companies are “fully committed” to honoring existing agreements.
In a war, security analysts say Russia would have little interest in a complete gas cut that would starve it of revenue and give Europe extra incentive to find other energy sources.
Countries like Lithuania and Poland have managed to reduce imports of Russian gas. But Russia accounts for more than a third of EU supplies, and its dominance is entrenched in the Baltic states, Germany, Italy and parts of southeastern Europe.
The central problem is that the 27 EU countries retain substantial control over energy policy. Conflicting regulations and standards make it difficult to transport gas from one system to another, even when the network to do so actually exists. Energy companies transporting gas across borders, for example, are sometimes charged tariffs more than once or twice.
“Unfortunately, the energy interconnection in Europe is an unresolved problem,” Miguel Arias Cañete, a former EU energy and climate commissioner who oversaw a proposal for additional gas infrastructure, told The Associated Press.
“It is in times of crisis that we see the need for market integration and sufficient infrastructure from a security and supply perspective,” he said, adding that the he focus on renewable energy should not overlook the role of natural gas.
After Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, diversification of energy supplies to reduce Russia’s dependence was enshrined in the EU’s 2015 energy union plan. Since then, significant progress has been made: more two-way pipeline connections have been built and more LNG import terminals are planned.
A new pipeline carries gas from Azerbaijan to Western Europe via Turkey and Greece. There is also a planned gas pipeline extension from northeast Greece to southern Bulgaria which would relieve Bulgaria’s total dependence on Russian gas. And Greece is moving forward with plans to build a facility to receive imported LNG by sea.
But connecting Europe’s energy markets hasn’t been done “good enough”, said energy policy expert Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. In particular, a gas pipeline connection between Spain and France was suspended, leaving “a major bottleneck that we have failed to resolve”, he said. Now, gas manufacturers are talking about relaunching the idea.
Following the crisis in Crimea, the focus shifted from energy security to climate change, leading to the EU’s Green Deal 2019, a sweeping plan to cut emissions.
“Energy security is gone,” Tagliapietra said. “It was all about sustainability, decarbonisation. Now we are seeing the big comeback of energy security as an issue in Europe.”
The issue seems ever more urgent among new eastern EU members who have bitter memories of Russian domination during the Cold War.
Poland has been working on gas pipeline connections with neighboring countries, including the Baltic Pipe, which is expected to deliver Norwegian gas to Denmark and others from 2023. The country has also built the Swinoujscie LNG port on the Baltic Sea, near the German border. Since 2015, the facility has reduced gas imports from Russia via the Yamal pipeline by a third, to less than 60% of its total gas imports.
Polish authorities have pledged not to extend Yamal’s deal when it expires next year, relying on more LNG from places like the United States, Qatar and Australia.
But investing billions in more pipelines or import terminals risks rendering them obsolete in the long-term shift to renewables, Tagliapietra said. Instead, Europe could require gas companies to start winter with adequate storage levels, he said.
Russia’s Gazprom failed to fill its underground storage in Europe last summer. “It’s up to them, and it’s not acceptable,” Tagliapietra said.
Governments are also talking about creating a strategic gas reserve, either shared between several countries or organized at EU level. Energy-consuming countries have been doing this with crude oil since the 1970s.
Environmentalists say the solution is not more gas but action to promote renewable energy.
“It’s kind of surreal and surprising,” said Elif Gündüzyeli, fossil fuel policy activist for the Climate Action Network. “This approach of adding more gas to the grid to solve the power supply problem is a bit like adding another lane to a highway to solve the traffic problem: more cars come in and it becomes even more complicated.”
“Detaching from Russia and hanging on to the United States, I don’t think will solve the EU’s energy security problems,” she said. “And that certainly doesn’t solve the climate emergency.”
McHugh reported from Frankfurt, Germany. Associated Press writers Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece; Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.