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Poland and Bulgaria might be fine without Russian gas for a few months — until next winter

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By Alice Tidey
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A Belarusian worker on duty at a gas compressor station of the Yamal-Europe pipeline near Nesvizh, some 130 km southwest of the capital Minsk, Belarus, Dec. 29, 2006.
A Belarusian worker on duty at a gas compressor station of the Yamal-Europe pipeline near Nesvizh, some 130 km southwest of the capital Minsk, Belarus, Dec. 29, 2006.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Sergei Grits

If there was ever a time for Russia to cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, spring was probably ideal as consumers are unlikely to feel the impact at home — but the race is now on to find alternatives for industry and before the cold returns.

Gazprom's decision, announced to the two interested EU member states on Tuesday evening, has been described as "blackmail" by Brussels chief Ursula von der Leyen and a "stark reminder" that the bloc needs "reliable partners to build its energy independence."

She also sought to downplay the consequences, stressing that neighbouring countries have stepped up to supply gas to Poland and Bulgaria.

Authorities in both countries have also struck a reassuring note with Bulgaria's Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, lauding the planned upcoming completion of the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB), which will bring mostly Azeri gas to the country.

At the same time, the Polish Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa emphasised that reserves meant "there will be gas in Polish homes."

Yet, experts have also told Euronews that although the average consumer is shielded from the Russian gas freeze until the winter, the picture is vastly different for the industry.

Polish winter 'will be difficult'

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal supplied a little over 40% of Poland's energy mix in 2020, followed by oil (about 30%) and natural gas (about 18%), with the rest coming from biofuels and waste as well as other sources of renewables including wind and solar.

Yet, Poland generates less than half — 46% — of its energy need, producing about 80% of the coal it consumes, but just 20% of gas and 3% of oil. The rest is thus met by imports. About half of the gas and nearly two-thirds of the oil Poland imports come from Russia, according to Forum Energii, a think tank.

These figures are high but still much lower than a few years ago when about 80% of Poland's gas imports came from Russia.

When the Gazprom decision came through, Moskwa claimed the country had been preparing for just such a scenario and that "thanks to infrastructure investments, such as the Baltic Pipe or connections with other Member States, the Polish gas system, as one of the few in the European Union, is able to completely abandon supplies from Russia."

She added that gas reserves were at 76% capacity.

Dr Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera, President of Forum Energii, explained to Euronews that "Gazprom's decision will not affect the production of electricity" in Poland.

"The biggest problem will be faced by the industry, which is the largest consumer of gas in Poland - 42%. Then, households and heating sector. Winter for heating will certainly be difficult," she stressed.

The Baltic Pipe, which will deliver natural gas from Norway to Poland through Denmark, is not yet completed after being hit by delays. It is expected to deliver 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually to Poland — about half of the country's total consumption.

It is now scheduled to start operations on October 1, albeit with lower volumes, and be fully operational from 1 January 2023, by which time winter should have well and truly reached the Old Continent.

Bulgaria needs 'solidarity agreements'

Coal is also Bulgaria's primary source of energy, closely followed by oil and nuclear. Natural gas accounts for just 10-15% of its energy mix, with the remaining supplied by biofuels, hydropower, wind and solar.

But at least three-quarters of the eastern country's gas imports are currently from Russia, and gas is crucial to the "industrial consumer segment of the market," Martin Vladimirov, Director of the Energy and Climate Programme at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, told Euronews.

"One-third of Bulgarian gas demand comes from the largest refinery in southeast Europe (also Russia-owned), the fertilizer plants, the glass factories and the petrochemical producers. Without stable and consistent alternative gas supply, it would be difficult for Bulgaria to secure the gas consumption needs of the industry and rationing, as well as production outages cannot be ruled out," he said.

According to Vladimirov, Bulgaria's gas reserves are only filled at 17%, "which means that at its current withdrawal rate of around four million cubic metres per day, it would not be able to fully cover the domestic gas demand for more than two to three weeks."

The country's authorities are now banking on the IGB. The pipeline will allow Bulgaria to be connected to the Southern Caspian Corridor, a natural gas supply route that travels through Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan to both Greek and Italian terminals.

But again, like Poland and the Baltic Pipe, the IGB is unlikely to fully come online before the temperatures dip.

"Construction works are more likely to end in September and then there is a 3-month certification process," Vladimirov said.

When the IGB taps fully open, though, it should have a "transformational effect on the security of gas supply to Bulgaria", Vladimirov went on by delivering one billion cubic metres of gas a year.

But, he added, it is likely that "Bulgaria will need to look for additional alternatives including by signing long-term LNG (liquefied natural gas) supply contracts with alternative players such as the US, Qatar or Algeria."

"As an immediate measure, the Bulgarian government should sign solidarity agreements with Greece and Romania for alternative gas supply allocations as Russian supply to the SEE market dwindles," he advised.

EU looks to US, Qatar, South Korea...

The EU vowed to slash its imports of Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of the year, two weeks after Moscow launched its military attack against Ukraine.

It then struck a deal with Washington late last month for the US to up its deliveries of liquified natural gas by 15 billion cubic metres this year to mitigate the loss of gas from Russia. The US is then expected to supply another 50 billion cubic metres of LNG until 2030.

Brussels has also pledged to accelerate investments to diversify, including in renewables but also in terminals that can accommodate LNG deliveries from countries including Qatar, South Korea, and Israel.

These can later be repurposed for hydrogen, which the EU has made a key component of its transition and ambition to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

In an address to reporters on Wednesday, von der Leyen reiterated that the bloc is working to "secure alternative gas supplies from other partners", flagging that the Gazprom decision is "a stark reminder that we need to work with reliable partners."

According to the Commission, the EU has the potential to import a further 50 billion cubic metres of LNG on a yearly basis.