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EU must cut gas use by 15% this winter over Russian disruption fears, Commission says

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By Alice Tidey
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels on July 20, 2022.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels on July 20, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

The European Commission urged member states on Wednesday to reduce their gas use by 15% from August 1 of this year until 31 March 2023 to ensure they can cope in the event of a total gas cut-off from Russia.

The voluntary measure is part of the highly-anticipated Save Gas for a Safe Winter plan presented in Brussels over worries that the EU will struggle to not only fill in gas storage capacities before the onset of winter but also  fail to secure enough additional supplies to fill in the gaps during the colder months.

The aim, the Commission said, is to safeguard supply to households and essential users like hospitals and key industries with all economic actors, including citizens, also urged to think about their own behaviour. 

Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen underlined that although some member states are more directly exposed to Russian gas and are therefore more vulnerable to disruptions, all member states "will suffer" if the bloc fails to act together as it would have an impact on the single market and the economy and tehfore employment. 

"It's important that all member states contribute in the saving, the storing and are ready to share gas," she said.

'Make it safely through the winter'

As part of the proposal, member states would have to submit national energy plans to the Commission by the end of September and provide an update every two months. Countries requesting solidarity gas supplies will be required to demonstrate the measures they have taken to reduce demand domestically.

The proposed legislation would also grant the Commission the power to declare a 'Union alert' on security of supply and to impose a mandatory gas demand reduction on all member states if they fail to cut back enough voluntarily. 

This alert would be triggered when "there is a substantial risk of severe gas shortage or an exceptionally high gas demand", the Commission said in a statement. 

Von der Leyen explained that a 15% reduction in gas consumption equates to about 45 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas — Russia delivered about 150 bcm of gas to the EU in 2021 — and that it would enable the bloc to "make it safely through the winter" in case of a complete cut-off from Russia. It would also avoid the need to impose forced curtailment measures that could see some industries compelled to slow down production to save energy. 

The Commission's proposal will be discussed by EU ministers during an extraordinary energy summit on 26 July.

Gas storage filled to 65%

The EU and its Western partners have accused Russia of weaponising gas supplies to Europe in retaliation against sanctions imposed over its ongoing military attack on Ukraine. The bloc has put an embargo on Russian oil which will come into force at the end of the year and which should result in a 90% cut in imports. It has, however, steered clear of imposing sanctions on Russian gas. 

Yet, 12 member states have already had their Russian gas supplies either partially or completely cut off.

In response, the Commission says it stands ready to coordinate joint purchases of gas for member states and has also struck supply deals with a number of other suppliers including the US, Norway, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Israel. 

The bloc has also already committed to filling in gas storage capacities to at least 80% before 1 November but concerns are growing that it will be a hard task as Russia provides 40% of the bloc's imported gas and that infrastructure to receive liquified natural gas from alternative sources is largely lacking. 

Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company, warned this week that its deliveries via Nord Stream 1, the pipeline through which about a third of Russian gas transits to Europe, would be cut some more after operations restart on Thursday following a planned 10-day maintenance break. 

European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson told reporters that gas storage capacities in the EU are now filled to about 65% but that further reduction of Russian gas deliveries will make reaching the 80% target "very challenging."

Failing to adequately fill in storage capacities means "we risk ending this winter with empty storage which will be impossible to refill in time for the next heating season," she stressed. 

Other measures member states can take include switching from gas to other energy sources, with a priority for renewables and cleaner fuels. 

The Commission chief flagged for instance that renewable energy capacity reached about 20 Gigawatts since the beginning of the year, which is "around about 4 bcm (of Russian gas) replaced by renewables by now."

But substituting gas could also mean extending nuclear and coal power plants, as several member states have already announced, the Commission said. 

'Give up a few comforts'

Finally, von der Leyen and the three commissioners who unveiled the plan also took great pains to emphasise that everyone has a role to play to save gas over this summer and during the winter.

Simson flagged for instance that there "is considerable potential for the public sector to reduce demand".

Additionally, Frans Timmermans, the Executive Vice-President of the Commission in charge of the European Green Deal, stressed, "many of the possible savings are no-regret measures" that citizens can make such as switching off the lights and other electrical appliances, increasing the air-conditioning temperatures and decreasing the heating temperature. 

"We remain masters of our destiny if we really do this," he went on, arguing that if Europeans "give up a few comforts", the bloc would "avoid a full-blown crisis next winter."