By Henry Ridgwell
Russia closed the major Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to Germany on Wednesday, claiming the three-day shutdown is necessary for the maintenance of turbines. Europe and the U.S. dispute that claim and accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of “weaponizing” energy.
Last year, Russia supplied 40 percent of the European Union’s gas. In recent weeks, Russia has reduced the flow through Nord Stream 1 to just 20 percent of capacity. Moscow blamed the latest shutdown on Western sanctions that have targeted its economy.
Visiting the town of Lubmin on Germany’s Baltic coast Tuesday, where the Nord Stream pipeline comes ashore, Markus Soeder, the premier of the German state of Bavaria, said his country was in a difficult position.
“Putin is playing a game with Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. I think it’s a kind of game. Our problem right now is that we are not in a position to adequately respond to this game,” Soeder told reporters.
Current European gas prices have soared to about 10 times their average price over the past decade. Germany declared a gas crisis in June and warned that consumers and businesses must cut back. Consumption has since fallen by around 20 percent.
In a stark speech last week, French President Emmanuel Macron warned of “the end of abundance” and said the French people would have to make sacrifices.
“Our freedom — the system of freedom, which we are used to living in — has a cost. And at times, if it needs to be defended, that could entail sacrifices to reach the end of certain battles we must carry out,” Macron said at a cabinet meeting August 24.
Looking for other sources
As Russia turns off the taps, Europe is scrambling to find alternative sources. Imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) have helped Europe fill gas storage sites to 80 percent capacity, two months ahead of the EU target. That has calmed markets and brought down prices in recent days. But storage will only last so long, said Tom O’Donnell, who teaches at the Free University in Berlin and is the founder of energy analyst group The Global Barrel.
“Storage by itself isn’t enough for the winter,” O’Donnell told VOA. “With all the pipelines cut off — which is what we have to expect from Russia, that all their pipelines will be cut off — [even with] all the LNG we can take, that storage is going to last 2½ months in heating season. And then, you know, Europe’s stuck.”
Europe is trying to wean itself off Putin’s gas, but it will take at least two years, O’Donnell said.
“In the meantime, he has leverage and he will use it all he can before totally loses the business,” O’Donnell said. “The dependence of Europe on Russian-delivered gas by pipeline is much greater than, let’s say, the importance of that money for Putin, because he makes so much more money from oil.”
Meanwhile, there is growing concern over a Russian gas flare, which has been burning close to the Finnish border for two months. Experts say it’s burning an estimated $10 million worth of gas every day, sending the equivalent of 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“It is on the site where the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany is starting,” said professor Esa Vakkilainen of Lut University in Lappeenranta, the closest city to the border.
“But it is also a place where the Russians have built an LNG plant to deliver LNG, and that plant was supposed to open this spring,” Vakkilainen told the Reuters news agency. “And so, it is probably operating. But due to the war in Ukraine, there is very little information about what is actually happening there. So, we can only speculate that right now there are some technical difficulties either involved with Nord Stream or with this LNG station.”
Across Europe, new LNG terminals are under construction, old coal and nuclear power plants are being fired up again, and there is a big investment in renewable power. But in the short term, it may not be enough, and governments are warning of a difficult winter ahead.