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Russia’s gas cuts to Europe in summer could bring a bitter winter

The headquarters of Gazprom Germania, formerly owned by Russian energy firm Gazprom, in Berlin on April 1. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
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A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities. The article has been corrected.

As tensions between Europe and Moscow rise over the war in Ukraine, Russia has sharply reduced gas flow to the continent. It’s a move officials say is deliberate political retribution for Europe’s support for Kyiv.

Both Italy and Slovakia said Friday that Russia’s state-owned energy firm Gazprom had reduced their anticipated gas deliveries by half. The two countries join a growing list of European nations — including Austria, France, Germany and Poland — that have seen their energy supplies dwindle in recent months.

Russia cuts off gas to Poland, Bulgaria, stoking tensions with E.U.

The cuts from Russia are not an immediate threat to consumers, analysts say, but could portend significant gas shortages later in the year. Many European nations use the slower summer months to stockpile gas for winter, when energy demand is higher.

The European Union last month set a target for member states to make sure gas storage facilities are 80 percent full by Nov. 1. They are currently 52 percent full, according to global financial services company ING.

“In the worst case, it would require some form of gas rationing to maintain supply for essential industries and services,” Henning Gloystein, an energy analyst at the political risk firm Eurasia Group, wrote in an emailed note.

Some countries, including Germany and Italy, have already considered compulsory restrictions on energy consumption. The International Energy Agency also called on leaders to draw up plans for energy rationing.

But such measures are likely to prove unpopular as inflation drives up consumer prices, putting further pressure on governments. For Moscow, this all translates to significant geopolitical leverage.

“Our product, our rules,” Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller said this past week when asked about the shutdown. “We don’t play by rules we didn’t create.”

The company has said that the slowdown is related to maintenance on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. It accounts for about 40 percent of Russian gas imports to Europe.

What is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and how does it relate to the Ukraine crisis?

Russian officials have pointed to a gas-pumping turbine produced by German firm Siemens Energy that was sent to Montreal for maintenance. Siemens Energy said this past week that Canadian sanctions on Russia have delayed its return.

Gazprom announced Tuesday that it was cutting gas via Nord Stream by 40 percent as a result. The pipeline is also scheduled for its annual summer maintenance for 10 days in July.

German grid data Friday showed that gas flows had fallen to 671.4 gigawatt-hours per day, according to Gloystein’s note — the lowest ever recorded outside of times when the pipeline was completely shut off.

European leaders have scoffed at the timing of the move, noting that the latest round of cuts came as the leaders of Germany, France and Italy met Thursday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

At a news conference in the Ukrainian capital, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi accused Russian officials and Gazprom of lying about the reasons for the slowdown.

“In reality, they are making a political use of gas like they are using grain for political use,” Draghi said.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck posted about the cuts Thursday on Instagram.

“Putin is doing what was to be feared from the beginning,” Habeck said. “He is reducing the volume of gas, not in one go but step by step.”

Most European leaders anticipated a downturn in gas supplies and were making moves to wean off Russian energy.

French pipeline operator GRTgaz said Friday that it had “noticed a halt in the physical flow between France and Germany” starting Wednesday. Although Russia once supplied about 16 percent of France’s total gas supply through the Nord Stream pipeline, Paris recently moved to diversify its energy resources, including from Spain.

Also Friday, German energy firm Uniper said that it received about 60 percent less gas from Russia than had been agreed to but that it was moving to replace the shortfall.

Still, the global energy market remains volatile. A fire and explosion this month at the liquefied natural gas terminal in Freeport, Tex., one of the largest in the United States, has knocked it offline for 90 days.

“The disruptions we are seeing now suggest the potential for a prolonged period of significantly reduced flows,” Warren Patterson, head of commodities strategy at ING Think, the company’s economic analysis arm, wrote in a note Friday.

Also in recent days, the German Association of Towns and Municipalities called for changes to regulations to make it easier to save energy. Landlords of rented apartments are currently obliged to ensure a temperature of at least 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).

But association head Gerd Landsberg told German daily Rheinische Post that this must be changed.

“Even an apartment with a temperature of 18 or 19 degrees Celsius (64 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit) can be lived in comfortably. And everyone should be able to support this small sacrifice,” Landsberg said.

In his Instagram post, Habeck, the German economy minister, reiterated the message for citizens that the government has been driving home in recent weeks: reduce consumption as much as possible.

“Now is the time to do so,” he said. “Every kilowatt hour helps in this situation.”

Taylor reported from Washington, Morris and Brady from Berlin. Rick Noack in Paris and Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report.

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