Brussels has asked EU countries to cut their gas use by 15 per cent and set out emergency plans ahead of winter when it anticipates severe disruption to gas supplies from Russia.
The European Commission on Wednesday said the 15 per cent reduction in gas consumption — from the average usage for the same period over the past five years — should start on August 1 and continue until the end of March next year.
“We have to prepare for potential full disruption of Russian gas and this is a likely scenario . . . I know this is a big ask for the whole of the European Union but it is necessary to protect us,” said commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
The 15 per cent target, which amounts to about six weeks of EU gas consumption based on last year’s levels, is voluntary but will be made compulsory if there is either a “drastic reduction” or a complete cut-off of Russian gas, von der Leyen said, or if at least three member states request it.
The EU plan comes amid uncertainty over whether Nord Stream 1, a crucial Russia-controlled gas pipeline to Europe that has been shut down for annual maintenance for the past 10 days, will come back online on Thursday and resume supplies.
Gascade, the German company that operates the entry points for Nord Stream 1 in Lubmin in the north-east of the country, announced on Wednesday that it had received “nominations” from Gazprom for Thursday morning, indicating that it intended to resume flows.
But a spokesperson for Gascade said the volumes could be delayed or reduced up to two hours before they were due to start flowing. “Things could still change,” she said.
Gazprom has said that for Nord Stream 1 to function normally it needs a turbine that was serviced in Canada but whose return to Russia was blocked due to western sanctions.
Von der Leyen said the turbine was “already in transit back so there is no pretext not to deliver gas”.
But Russian president Vladimir Putin, speaking in Tehran, signalled that gas would only start flowing again at a reduced rate of 30mn cubic metres a day, or less than 20 per cent of capacity, if the turbine was not returned.
Nord Stream 1 can transport as much as 167mn cubic metres a day. Before the maintenance began, Russia had reduced the amount of gas it was pumping through the pipeline by 60 per cent, citing technical reasons connected to the turbine’s absence.
Brussels has been working to secure non-Russian imports of gas to offset further cuts by Moscow, which provided 155bn cubic metres or about 40 per cent of the EU’s gas in 2021, and has already decreased gas deliveries to at least 12 EU countries.
Since the start of the year, non-Russian gas imports have increased by 35 bcm from countries such as the US, UK, Norway and Azerbaijan, the commission said. Europe has also accelerated its rollout of renewable energy, adding an extra 20 gigawatts of capacity — equivalent to 4 bcm of gas.
To reach the suggested reduction in gas, EU capitals will be expected to set out “national emergency plans” by September to show how energy use will be reduced and report on progress every two months.
The EU said it aimed to “safeguard supply to households and essential users like hospitals” and industries that are critical to cross-border supply chains. The plan also outlined that member states should prioritise switching fuels to renewables or coal, oil or nuclear power if needed and suggested that EU capitals could mandate levels of heating and cooling in public buildings.
Several EU countries have reacted angrily to the prospect of mandatory targets set by the commission.
“There are serious issues among member states. Everybody has their own problems and on top of that there is the whole institutional issue: whether the commission should be able to apply the emergency measures itself,” said one EU diplomat.
Industry bodies cautiously welcomed the “Save gas for a safe winter” plan, but warned that European governments needed to be careful of where they made savings.
“The member states need to reflect carefully on where they will cut because several industries have different situations,” said Axel Eggert, director-general of the European Steel Association. “Steel has a very high impact on downstream sectors.”
Fertilizers Europe said: “If natural gas availability is to deteriorate further, Europe risks experiencing fertiliser shortage that will impact Europe’s agriculture in the coming season.”
Judith Kirton-Darling, deputy general secretary of IndustriAll, the European trade union, said the commission had not accounted for what will happen to workers should industries need to close. “No one is talking about what it means for the workers on sites that will have to reduce production or be stopped according to the reduction plan . . . It’s a big gaping hole at a time when workers are extremely anxious about what is happening,” she said.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard and Harry Dempsey in London and Joe Miller in Frankfurt
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