As Russia tightens its chokehold on supplies of natural gas, Europe is looking everywhere for energy to keep its economy running. Coal-fired power plants are being revived. Billions are being spent on terminals to bring in liquefied natural gas, much of it from shale fields in Texas. Officials and heads of state are flying to Qatar, Azerbaijan, Norway and Algeria to nail down energy deals.
Across Europe, fears are growing that a cutoff of Russian gas will force governments to ration fuel and businesses to close factories, moves that could put thousands of jobs at risk.
So far, the hunt for fuel has been met with considerable success. But as prices continue to soar and the Russian threat shows no sign of abating, the margin for error is thin.
“There is a very big and legitimate worry about this winter,” said Michael Stoppard, vice president for global gas strategy at S&P Global, a research firm.
Five months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is in the grip of an accelerated and increasingly irreversible transition in how it gets its energy to heat and cool homes, drive businesses and generate power. A long-term switch to more renewable sources of energy has been overtaken by a short-term scramble to make it through the coming winter.
The amount of natural gas coming from Russia, once Europe’s largest source of the fuel, is less than a third of what it was a year ago. This week, Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, throttled back already sharply reduced flows in a key pipeline from Russia to Germany, sending European gas futures prices to record levels.
Within a day of Gazprom’s announcement, the European Union called for a 15 percent cut of gas use throughout the bloc.
This move away from Russian natural gas — almost unthinkable after a decades-long embrace of Siberian gas delivered via pipelines stretching thousands of miles — is sending shock waves through factory floors and forcing governments to seek alternative sources of energy.
The multipronged effort to uncover alternatives to Russian gas has largely made up for the shortfall. Despite Gazprom’s cutbacks, supplies of natural gas in Europe in the first half of 2022 have been roughly equal to those of the same period last year, according to Jack Sharples, a fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
The standout performer in this comeback has been liquefied natural gas, chilled to a condensed liquid form and transported on ships. LNG has essentially switched places with piped gas from Russia as Europe’s main source of the fuel. About half of the supply has come from the United States, which this year became the world’s largest exporter of the fuel.
Looking toward the end of the year, European countries are pushing energy companies to fill salt caverns and other storage facilities with gas to provide a margin of safety in case Russia shuts down the pipelines.
Europe’s gas storage has now built up to about 67 percent of overall capacity, more than 10 percentage points higher than a year ago. Those levels create some comfort that European countries might reach something close to the European Union’s target of 80 percent full before winter.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- Grain Blockade: A breakthrough deal aims to lift a Russian blockade on Ukrainian grain shipments, easing a global food crisis. But in the fields of Ukraine, farmers are skeptical.
- An Ambitious Counterattack: Ukraine has been laying the groundwork to retake Kherson from Russia. But the endeavor would require huge resources, and could come at a heavy toll.
- Economic Havoc: As food, energy and commodity prices continue to climb around the world, few countries are feeling the bite as much as Ukraine.
- Inside a Headquarters: For 80 days, at the Avtostal steelworks, a relentless Russian assault met unyielding Ukrainian resistance. This is how it was for those who were there.
But concerns are still mounting, and there are many reasons the European effort could fall short as colder weather approaches.
Russia is well aware of the European Union’s campaign to store enough gas to fend off a cutoff this winter and wants to impede it, analysts say, by causing pipeline flows to dwindle. And all sorts of weather issues — an exceptionally cold winter, a storm in the North Sea that knocks out Norway’s gas production or a busy Atlantic hurricane season that delays LNG tankers — could tip Europe into energy shortages.
“We are getting close to the danger zone,” said Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president for gas at Wood Mackenzie, a research institution.
Reflecting these worries, European gas future prices have doubled in the last two months to about 200 euros a megawatt-hour on the Dutch TTF exchange, around 10 times the levels of a year ago.
The astronomical cost of energy in Europe is putting a wide variety of industries on the defensive, forcing changes that may help make the European Union’s voluntary 15 percent gas savings target attainable. The International Energy Agency recently forecast that gas demand in the region would fall 9 percent this year.
For instance, a steel mill owned by ArcelorMittal on Hamburg’s busy harbor in Germany has for years used natural gas to extract the iron that then goes into its electric furnace. But recently, it shifted to buying metal inputs for its mill from a sister plant in Canada with access to cheaper energy. Natural gas prices in North America, while elevated by historical standards, are about a seventh of European prices.
“Natural gas costs so much that we cannot afford” to operate in the usual way, said Uwe Braun, chief executive of ArcelorMittal Hamburg.
Few analysts or executives expect the situation to ease in the coming months. Instead, the winter may well prove to be a nail-biter with energy-intensive industries like metal smelters and makers of fertilizer and glass under pressure.
News of plant closures or production cutbacks is already trickling in. In Romania, ALRO Group said recently that it was closing production at a large aluminum plant and laying off 500 people because high energy costs made it uncompetitive.
In some countries, including Britain and Germany, energy companies have not yet fully passed these costs to their customers, meaning the hardest blows are yet to come.
“The biggest risk at the moment is an explosion of household and industrial energy prices this winter, which the public and industry can barely deal with,” said Henning Gloystein, a director at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm.
Shipments of liquefied natural gas, the chief alternative to piped-in gas from Russia for much of the continent, remains a costly alternative. And Europe’s growing appetite for LNG may be hurting other regions of the globe that rely on the fuel.
Europe has been essentially bidding liquefied gas away from other markets, chiefly in Asia, where China, Japan and South Korea are major customers. Europe is “taking LNG away from markets that are not prepared to pay the prices that Europe may be prepared to pay,” Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Shell, a provider of LNG, told reporters on Thursday. “That is a very uncomfortable position to be in.”
Countries like Germany and Romania are also taking other steps, including bringing back coal-fired electric power plants or delaying their retirement. The idea is to minimize the amount of gas used at power plants to generate electricity and save it for essentials like home heating or running factories. On Thursday, the International Energy Agency forecast that global coal demand this year would reach almost nine billion tons, matching its peak of 2013.
Many uncertainties remain. Although Europe has about two dozen terminals to receive liquefied natural gas, none are in Germany. Berlin is scrambling to build as many as four of these installations and has set aside €2.5 billion ($2.55 billion) to rent four LNG processing vessels, but it is not clear if any of them will be online quickly enough provide much help this winter.
Weather may also be crucial, and not only in Europe. A frigid winter in Asia, long the primary market for liquefied gas, would heighten the competition with Europe for what analysts say is a limited global supply of LNG
It is also hard to see where else large increases of gas would come from. “If we lose Russian supply entirely, there is not very much headroom to increase supply from elsewhere,” Mr. Sharples of the Oxford Institute said.
There are other wild cards. Until the gas crunch hit, the Dutch government set in place a plan to wind down the enormous Groningen field in the northern Netherlands — one of the few major sources of natural gas in mainland Europe — because of local anger over earthquakes caused by gas extraction.
Some observers question the government’s continued reluctance to awaken what Mr. Stoppard of S&P Global called a “sleeping giant” that could put very substantial amounts of gas — perhaps 40 percent of Germany’s annual consumption — back into the grid.
The Dutch government has decided to hold off on permanently closing the gas wells because of “the uncertain geopolitical developments,” but it insists it will consider using Groningen only “in the worst-case scenario, if people’s safety is at risk.”
This stance could be tested in the coming months.
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.