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Exclusive: Inside Europe's Plans To Become Independent Of Russian Gas

The European Commission is busy trying to get Europe to be completely independent from Russian natural gas by the end of the year. It won’t come without hardships, including for consumers and the climate. Die Welt has details on how it will happen, and what it will cost.

Exclusive: Inside Europe's Plans To Become Independent Of Russian Gas

Steam rises from the cooling towers of Lippendorf power plant

Tobias Kaiser

BERLIN — Pressure is mounting on European Union states to impose an embargo on Russian energy supplies. The European Commission, the EU’s powerful administration, is already preparing for a possible cutoff of oil and gas supplies from Russia — even in the event that Russia stops supplies of its own accord.

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The staff of EU Industry and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton has drawn up a scenario of how the EU can become independent of gas supplies from Russia by the end of the year. The calculations were mare available exclusively to Die Welt.

“It is high time that we prepare for all eventualities, this year,” Breton told Die Welt. “This includes a complete supply freeze for Russian gas and even all the other fossil fuels we purchase from there. We need to prepare and discuss a scenario with zero fossil fuels from Russia.” EU countries also buy oil and coal from Russia.

According to the Commission’s data, Russia supplies 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the EU per year. The European Commission has previously considered how to replace two thirds of that amount by the end of the year. Breton’s staff has added to that list. The numbers result in the theoretical possibility of replacing Russian natural gas almost entirely.

Floating LNG terminals

Not without reason: the Commissioner has the concerns of companies at heart. In the event of an acute gas shortage, companies that are not critical to the system could be cut off from the gas supply – and in some cases would have to stop production. German companies are already running through similar scenarios.

The plans include some measures that are already known. These include additional imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), primarily from the U.S. and Qatar. They could replace 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas. The big challenge, however, is to direct additional supplies to where Russian gas fails.

The authority also sees great potential in renewable energies

Spain has many LNG terminals but is not currently connected to the rest of the EU’s gas network. Building new terminals in northern Europe will take several years. One much-discussed option is floating LNG terminals, which can be operational more quickly. Something like this is planned in Wilhelmshaven in Lower Saxony and could be ready for use by the end of 2023, as state Environment Minister Olaf Lies told Die Welt.

Moreover, supplies are to be increased via other existing pipelines, such as those to Azerbaijan, Algeria and Morocco. They are currently not being fully utilized or are even idle due to the political disputes. In some cases, higher delivery volumes have already been agreed, for example with Norway. According to the Commission’s calculations, additional deliveries could replace ten billion cubic meters of Russian gas.

The authority also sees great potential in renewable energies: planned wind, solar and biogas projects are to be accelerated so that even more capacity can be connected to the grid this year than was already planned. Newly completed biogas plans could replace 3.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas by the end of the year, new wind turbines ten billion cubic meters, and new solar parks 12.5 billion cubic meters.

At the same time, the authority is betting on reduced gas consumption: lowering the room temperature by one to two degrees could reduce gas consumption in Europe by 10 billion cubic meters, Breton calculates. When other nuclear reactors were shut down in Japan after the Fukushima disaster, that worked, the French politician says. Energy-efficient refurbishment, which should also be accelerated, will save another four billion cubic meters, he adds.

View of the new gas-fired power plant for the Leuna chemical park, which is directly connected by pipeline to suppliers from Russia

Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

Belgium delays phasing out nuclear power 

In addition to such largely uncontroversial measures, Breton’s staff have identified savings opportunities that offer far more cause for conflict. Environmental and climate activists in particular are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

For example, Breton proposes to keep the three German nuclear power plants that are scheduled to go offline in the next few months, running. The French politician considers this a technically and politically viable option and refers to recent statements by Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck. "I heard that the vice chancellor didn't say no to that."

Over the weekend, Belgium postponed its planned nuclear phase-out; there, two power plants that were supposed to be shut down are to run for ten years longer. Together, the two Belgian power plants and the three German power plants could replace twelve billion cubic meters of Russian gas, Breton calculated.

Higher production in the Dutch Groningen gas field could replace an additional three billion cubic meters. That, too, is a proposal with potential for conflict. “You have to be careful, of course, given the risks of earthquakes that this could cause,” Breton said. But he said he believes the Netherlands is willing to consider a higher subsidy.

Risk of higher CO2 emissions

It is also possible to switch from gas to other energy sources when generating electricity. Additional firing of coal could replace 20 billion cubic meters of Russian gas. “German coal-fired power plants alone could replace 14 billion cubic meters if they were running at full capacity,” Breton says.

Burning heavy oil in electricity generation could replace another 10 billion cubic meters. However, both options would provide higher CO2 emissions: heavy oil in particular is an extremely dirty fuel. Relying more heavily on dirty fuels again would also counteract the European Green Deal, which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to stick to.

Commission officials also see opportunities for savings in industry, which is responsible for a quarter of natural gas consumption. Burning more oxygen instead of natural gas could save three billion cubic meters of gas by the end of 2022, especially in the steel and metal industries and in the production of mineral wool and glass.

Refineries could use heavy oil instead of natural gas for heating in some cases. Even a switch to biogas, pellets, oil and coal could be considered with the necessary technical adjustments, he said.

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