EU scramble for gas supplies prompts climate concerns

High energy prices, record-low storage levels, limited Russian gas flows to Europe — and the risk of supply disruptions — are prompting the EU to search for alternative energy sources.

In what amounts to a global quest, the EU is negotiating possible emergency gas supplies with Norway, the United States, Qatar and Azerbaijan to respond to already high energy prices and a possible weaponisation of supplies by Russia in the event of a conflict in Ukraine.

The rush to source more gas is redoubling concerns about locking Europe into a polluting future entailing losses on investments as well as environmental harm.

But for now, concerns about energy security have the upper hand.

A key factor prompting European policymakers to take action to find more gas supplies are signs Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom is not prepared to release more supplies to Europe.

“There are increasing signs that the Kremlin is continuing to use gas supplies as a means of exerting political pressure,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told a conference organised by German media on Monday (7 February).

It was “strange,” she said, that Gazprom has not shown any interest in increasing gas supplies to Europe, despite record-high prices and considerable demand.

Russia is the largest gas supplier to the EU, providing some 40 percent of EU needs.

Meanwhile on Monday, senior EU officials visited the United States to discuss the possibility of increasing liquified natural gas (LNG) supplies to Europe.

In a joint statement, the US and the EU said they are working with international partners to avoid “supply shocks” like those that could result from a further Russian incursion into Ukraine.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken pledged to protect EU energy supplies if Russia reduces gas flows to the bloc further.

“When Russia halted gas supplies over a dispute with Ukraine in 2009, people died from the cold,” Blinken told a press conference on Monday. “And when energy supplies fail, economies falter,” said Blinken, speaking alongside EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell.

“We are determined to prevent that from happening and to mitigate the impact on energy supplies and prices should Russia choose to cut natural gas supplies to Europe more than it already has,” he added.

EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson, meanwhile, has also been in talks with Azerbaijan and Qatar on increasing supplies to Europe.

Azerbaijan has shown a willingness to support the EU in the short term in case of a disruption of gas flows, a commission spokesperson said.

The capacity of the Trans-Adriatic pipeline, connecting Azerbaijan to Europe, could be potentially doubled in the near future, according to EU sources.

Likewise, discussions with Qatar are focussed on increasing LNG supply to the EU.

But boosting gas-production and exports in the short term has challenges of its own.

Simone Tagliapietra of think tank Bruegel explained that Russian gas supplies to Europe cannot be replaced by any single country, because global gas production capacity is mostly determined by existing contracts.

“Qatar and the US could certainly increase exports to the EU, but this alone wouldn’t be sufficient to replace Russian gas volumes,” he told EUobserver.

And with the commission including gas in its EU taxonomy rules for sustainable activities, concerns are only mounting among green groups over Europe’s continued dependence on fossil fuels.

For her part, Tara Connolly, a campaigner at NGO Global Witness, said that more gas imports from third countries would lock Europe into “a future tied to an energy source that is fuelling climate breakdown and pushing millions into energy poverty”.

“It’s a shame the EU didn’t learn its lesson and begin to phase out fossil gas when Russia invaded Ukraine [and annexed Crimea] in 2014,” Connolly said.

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