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Russia could completely cut Europe’s gas supplies this winter, international energy boss warns

June 22, 2022, 11:54 AM UTC

Europe should prepare for the worst when it comes to future supplies of Russian natural gas, the head of the International Energy Agency has warned.

In an interview published Wednesday, Fatih Birol told the Financial Times that “Europe should be ready in case Russian gas is completely cut off” during the coming winter, and warned that such a development could force gas rationing.

Europe is already in the process of reducing its dependence on Russian oil by 90% by the end of this year, as it tries to stop effectively funding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Russian natural gas is proving harder to quit, because of its immense importance in countries such as Germany and Italy.

Earlier this year, Russia accounted for around 40% of Europe’s gas supplies. That reliance has been halved since the invasion, but it’s not clear that Europe can continue that pace of substitution.

Energy leverage

The big fear is that Russia will use its continued gas exports for leverage in the coming winter, when European countries most need the stuff to heat people’s homes and keep industry humming.

Russia has already completely axed natural-gas supplies to countries such as Finland, Poland, and the Netherlands, because those countries refused to pay in rubles. It also recently strangled flows to Germany and France, claiming sanctions are holding up essential repairs on the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

As a result, Europe is starting to tap into its reserves for the winter—in midsummer.

“I believe the cuts are geared towards avoiding Europe filling storage, and increasing Russia’s leverage in the winter months,” Birol told the FT.

EU countries agreed last month to get their gas reserves 80% full by November, to get through the winter. The EU’s reserves are currently around 55% full, according to industry data.

There is of course a possibility that Russian gas could stop flowing into the EU significantly before the winter; Russia is currently threatening EU and NATO member Lithuania with “serious” consequences for blocking the transport of sanctioned goods across its territory into the Russian coastal enclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.

Owing to the Russian threat, Europe is scrambling both to diversify its gas sourcing and to keep other energy options alive, even if they were being phased out for good reason. For Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands, that means hanging on to coal-fired power for longer.

Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess said this week that the German car giant would for now maintain the ability to power its plants with coal rather than gas, because the Europe’s turn away from Russian gas is “going probably not fast enough” to deal with a more serious cutoff.

The situation has also reignited the debate in Germany over the future of nuclear power, which is supposed to be phased out entirely by the end of this year. Christian Lindner, Germany’s neoliberal finance minister, said Tuesday that the coalition government should not exclude the possibility of keeping the country’s last three nuclear plants operational.

Countries “should consider postponing closures [of nuclear plants] as long as the safety conditions are there,” said Birol, whose organization on Wednesday warned of insufficient capital spending on renewable energy sources.

“Investment is central to tackling the multiple strands of today’s energy crisis: to relieve pressure on consumers, to get the world on a net-zero pathway, to spur economic recovery, and—for Europe in particular—to reduce reliance on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine,” read an IEA report on the matter.

Fossil fuels

Separately, the IEA earlier this week called for the development of over 5,000 billion cubic meters of natural-gas resources in Africa, claiming this would bring the continent’s share of global emissions from less than 3% to “a mere 3.5%.”

African climate activists responded angrily, pointing out that the agency had just last year called for an end to investment in new fossil-fuel supply projects.

The report published Wednesday by the IEA also warned that “no one should imagine that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can justify a wave of new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure in a world that wants to limit global warming to 1.5°C.”

The key to a successful European strategy this year will lie in having well-defined targets for saving gas, backed by government programs and grants, said professor Karsten Neuhoff, head of the climate policy department at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

Neuhoff drew a comparison with the “day zero” water-shortage situation in Cape Town several years ago: While local authorities initially drew up grand plans for desalination plants and so on, it was well-communicated information about how many days’ water was left in reservoirs that prompted people to cut down on their water usage.

“To some extent we’re lucky we have the summer still ahead of us,” Neuhoff said. “Everyone can learn, and we can also implement something similar in terms of saving.”

The professor also suggested that Europe’s temporary return to coal would not derail the continent’s climate plans, because the gas crisis and skyrocketing energy prices would force people to implement energy-efficiency plans. “It’s an opportunity to kick-start the retrofit race,” he said.

This article was updated to include Neuhoff’s comments.

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