Europe’s plan to wean itself off Russian gas could work

1970 west German politicians and gas managers signed a landmark agreement with the Soviet Union that would shape the next half-century of European energy policy. West Germany promised to supply the USSR with steel pipes, in return for which the USSR extended a gas pipeline to West Germany’s border and began pumping Soviet gas under the Iron Curtain and into Western Europe. The trade deal was a form of Ostpolitik– a broader policy of unfreezing relations between the USSR and West Germany, which earned then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

Brandt – who died in 1992 – might not have imagined how deeply the two former enemies would become. Until German reunification in 1990, gas from the USSR accounted for more than 30 percent of the country’s gas consumption. By 2021, Russia supplied around 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas, with some smaller countries like Latvia almost entirely dependent on Russia for their supplies. Germany, with its heavy steel industry and gas-fired heating, depended on Russia for nearly half of its natural gas.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 exposed deep cracks in the EU’s energy policy. Following EU sanctions on Russia, the state-controlled Russian energy company Gazprom announced it would cut gas exports through one of its main pipelines to about 20 percent of capacity. The share of Russian gas entering Europe has fallen to 15 percent, pushing already inflated prices to new highs. In the UK, sensitive to gas prices in international markets, average energy bills are expected to be nearly four times their January 2019 levels.

“It is important that the EU recognizes that increasing this dependence on Russia was a political failure,” says Ganna Gladkykh, a researcher at the European Energy Research Alliance. The continent now faces two challenges. First, one or more cold winters, when gas supplies are stretched, could mean forced power outages and industrial shutdowns. Second, Europe needs to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, secure new contracts with various suppliers and push ahead with the expansion of renewable energies. At the end of this road, Europe may find itself in a new era of energy security – no longer dependent on an unpredictable neighbor to the east, but with a new dynamic that may bring its own problems.

But first: the crunch. At the end of July, the member states of the European Union agreed to reduce their gas requirements by 15 percent between August 2022 and March 2023. The measures are voluntary, but the EU Council has warned they could become mandatory if gas security reaches crisis levels. Some countries have already taken small steps to limit energy demand. Cities in Germany are turning off public lights, lowering thermostats and closing swimming pools to reduce dependence on Russian gas. France has banned shops from running air conditioners with the doors open, while Spain – which doesn’t import much Russian gas – now bans setting air conditioners below 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit) in public places.

Natural gas is used in three main ways: to generate electricity in power plants, to heat homes and offices, and in industries such as steelmaking and fertilizer production. Although there are alternatives to gas in power plants – Chancellor Olaf Scholz has raised the possibility of extending the life of nuclear power plants in order to reduce gas consumption – it is much more difficult to find alternatives to gas for industry and heating. The EU also has rules protecting homes, hospitals, schools and other essential services from gas rationing measures.

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