EU Policy. Ministers agree to extend gas saving policy through 2024

After the unsolved sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines linking Russia to Germany in September 2022, but the EU remains dependent on Russia for 15% of its gas imports. of
After the unsolved sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines linking Russia to Germany in September 2022, but the EU remains dependent on Russia for 15% of its gas imports. of Copyright AP/AP
By Robert Hodgson
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With no end in sight to president Putin’s war on Ukraine, European energy ministers have agreed to extend for a second year voluntary measures to keep natural gas demand across the EU to at least 15% below pre-invasion levels, and discussed ways to end lingering dependence on Russian gas.

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Energy ministers have agreed to extend for a second year voluntary measures to keep natural gas demand to at least 15% below where it stood before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when Russia supplied some two-fifths of the EU’s needs, while the European Commission said the bloc is ready to stop ongoing imports through war-torn Ukraine.

Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten – who chaired an EU Council summit in Brussels on Monday (4 March) that included a discussion of ensuring reserves are filled in time for the next winter – said the emergency measures had “clearly worked” with gas demand across the 27-member bloc having fallen by 18%.

Governments ushered in a range of measures in 2022 to encourage lower consumption, ranging from awareness raising campaigns to concrete restrictions on the use of air conditioning and obligatory reduction in the temperature of public buildings and swimming pools. Soaring prices also helped dampen demand, especially in heavy industry.

Despite EU gas storage still being 62% full as a particularly mild winter draws to a close, ministers agreed that global gas markets remained tight and vulnerable to unexpected shocks. “Considering the persistent risks…strengthening both preparedness and security of supply will remain crucial,” Van der Straeten said.

However, despite efforts to diversify supply – the EU’s new centralised purchasing platform was overwhelmed last month with bids to deliver gas between April 2024 and October 2029 – Russia remains a significant supplier ahead of the divorce date of 2027 set out in the RePowerEU plan, rushed out in the wake of the invasion.

Speaking after the ministerial summit, EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson acknowledged that Russian gas still accounted for 15% of EU imports last year, or nearly 43 billion cubic metres. Norway is by far the largest supplier, followed now by the US liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Despite the ongoing military conflict, some 14 billion cubic metres of Russian gas was piped through Ukraine to south eastern Europe last year, but the transit agreement between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukrainian pipeline operator Naftogaz is due to expire in December.

But Simson said it was time to end such imports, and that EU efforts to diversify supply routes over the past two years mean any shortfall could be absorbed by the European market.

“The EU has no interest in prolonging the trilateral agreement with Russia, and the focus should now be on supporting Ukraine…and best use its gas infrastructure and storage…integrating it further into the EU energy market,” Simson said, although she acknowledged some member states had voiced concerns about the greater expense of alternative options.

The bulk of ongoing Russian gas imports are now in the form of LNG, with 18bcm last year. Ministers discussed a call from Lithuania for “urgent legal actions” to end the import of Russian LNG to Europe.

Van der Straeten told reporters that an EU-level ban on imports would mean adding gas to the list of Russian products already subject to sanctions, and that this would require unanimous support by all 27 member states. It was clear from the intervention by one member state, whom the Belgian minister did not name, that unanimity “would not be a given”.

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