BRUSSELS — The European Union on Wednesday called on its members to ration natural gas, as they brace for the “likely scenario” that Russia could cut off the flow to Europe.
As Russia has reduced gas flows and issued threats to Europe, fears have grown that high prices and supply shortages may result in homes without heat and industries without power this winter. European officials accuse the Kremlin of retaliating over Western sanctions.
“Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon. And therefore, in any event, whether it’s a partial major cutoff of Russian gas or total cutoff . . . Europe needs to be ready,” Von der Leyen told a news conference in Brussels.
“We have to prepare for a potential full disruption of Russian gas,” she added. “And this is a likely scenario.”
The proposal, which must still be approved by member states, comes as Europe waits to see if Russia will restart flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline Thursday at the end of scheduled maintenance. The German pipeline operator, Gascade, told The Washington Post that Russian energy company Gazprom had submitted requests to resume gas through the pipeline at levels of about 40 percent, equivalent to before it was shut down. But Gascade spokeswoman Uta Kull said nothing would be certain until the gas starts flowing.
Russia has already stopped sending gas to the Baltic states and Poland, Bulgaria and Finland, and reduced flows elsewhere.
Almost half the countries in the E.U. have been affected, according to Von der Leyen. “Overall the flow of Russian gas is now less than one-third what it used to be at the same time last year,” she said as she urged households, public buildings and industries to start rationing.
Wednesday’s proposal asks governments to switch from gas to alternative fuels, incentivizes industries to curb consumption, and lists ways for consumers to reduce energy used for heating and cooling.
“Energy saved in summer is energy available for winter,” read an announcement on the new proposal and legislation.
If the energy situation deteriorates further, the commission wants to be able to trigger an E.U. alert that could make proposed cuts binding.
If such a mechanism were approved and used, E.U. countries would need to report every two months on how much they have reduced their gas consumption, according to the proposal. However, it is unclear if countries failing to meet targets would face penalties.
The fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted European dependence on Russian energy.
In the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 24 invasion, the E.U. took aim at Russia’s economy, hitting the Kremlin with sweeping rounds of sanctions.
But the bloc has lagged behind the more diversified United States in curtailing Russian energy imports. In 2021, Europe imported about 40 percent of its natural gas and more than a quarter of its oil from Russia.
E.U. leaders struggled for weeks to agree on a plan to phase out imports of Russian oil. Ultimately, the bloc was forced to grant extensions to several countries, keeping some oil flowing for now.
Member states have for the most part brushed off the suggestion of a gas embargo. In March, the bloc said it would cut Russian imports by two-thirds this year. In the months since, the E.U. has sought out new suppliers. On Monday, for instance, the bloc signed a gas deal with Azerbaijan.
Thierry Breton, the E.U.’s internal market commissioner, said the bloc has found substitutes for roughly half of what it had been importing from Russia.
E.U. countries on Wednesday also approved a seventh round of sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.
The latest measures ban gold imports, list new individuals and entities, and seek to improve the implementation and enforcement of existing sanctions. But the sanctions do not take aim at natural gas imports.
The scramble to secure energy supplies has raised questions about whether the E.U. will stray from its climate commitments.
Wednesday’s proposal says that before considering curtailments, member states should “exhaust all fuel substitution possibilities, non-mandatory savings schemes and alternative energy sources.”
“Where possible, priority should be given to switching to renewables or cleaner, less carbon-intensive or polluting options,” the commission wrote. “However, switching to coal, oil or nuclear may be necessary as a temporary measure, as long as it avoids long term carbon lock-in.”
In a news release, Greenpeace slammed the proposal, saying it was too focused on “facilitating the switch to dirty fuel sources like oil and coal” and overlooked “the detrimental impacts of unsustainable energy sources on the climate.”
Francis reported from London. Rauhala reported from Brussels.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.