Ukraine gas crisis spurs EU energy policy
The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine that has left hundreds of thousands of Europeans shivering in the winter cold is bound to accelerate plodding European Union efforts to build a common energy policy.
The cut-off of Russian gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine highlighted how little progress the 27-nation EU has made in connecting national energy networks and diversifying supplies since the first such crisis three years ago.
“A similar situation occurred in 2006 and we Europeans now feel guilty about not having done what we said we would do,” said an EU energy official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of his position.
Unlike 2006, when the Europeans broadly sided with Ukraine’s pro-Western, democratic government, the EU has remained strictly neutral this time in what it regards as mostly a commercial dispute over gas pricing and unpaid bills.
Both sides broke undertakings to Brussels on continuity of supply. The lack of transparency on contracts, the role of murky intermediaries and coalition feuding in Kiev all made it harder to sympathise with Ukraine this time, the EU official said.
“The Russians were having a good gas war until they overreacted by cutting supplies to the EU. As in the war with Georgia last year, they could not resist the urge to teach former Soviet republics a lesson,” he said.
Russian giant Gazprom’s demand for Ukraine to pay market prices is not unreasonable, but television images of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordering the company to turn off the taps to Europe belies talk of a purely commercial issue.
Several EU states have increased gas stocks since 2006 and avoided major disruption. But Bulgaria, the poorest EU newcomer, and western Balkans states Croatia and Bosnia were caught with no stocks at all. Supplies to 18 countries have been affected.
That prompted the EU to intervene. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, the EU presidency holder, persuaded Moscow and Kiev to sign a deal allowing EU monitors to check the transit of gas across Ukraine to get supplies to Europe flowing again.
Progress on integrating the European gas market by linking up national pipeline systems has been very slow, partly due to mutual mistrust among EU nations, as well as divergent business interests and political differences on relations with Moscow.
Member states still do not share information with each other about the price their energy companies pay Gazprom for gas. The executive European Commission and the EU Council secretariat have been struggling to collate such data since 2006.
“We preach transparency but we do not practice it among ourselves,” the EU energy official said.
Poland has led a chorus of new members from central and eastern Europe calling for energy “solidarity” within the EU to reduce the former Soviet satellites’ dependency on Moscow, which provides a quarter of the EU’s gas.
But Germany, Europe’s biggest gas consumer, opposes any emergency EU pooling arrangement for gas stocks, arguing that this is a commercial matter for utility companies.
Berlin is keen to manage its energy relationship with Russia without the involvement of Brussels. It resisted any EU involvement in the Ukraine dispute until the leaders of Bulgaria and Croatia appealed personally to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
EU officials say the crisis should spur European leaders at a March summit to put political momentum and public money behind plans to build cross-border energy interconnectors in Europe.
They may also agree on minimum requirements for gas storage as the EU has for national oil stocks.
And they will likely give higher priority to diversifying gas suppliers, supply routes and delivery mechanisms in particular to develop liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities.
Among suppliers, the EU is eyeing Qatar and Nigeria for LNG as well as Algeria, Norway, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Central Asian countries for piped gas.
Russia is using the crisis to underline the cost for its NordStream and South Stream projects to carry Russian gas directly to European consumers via pipelines under the Baltic and Black seas, bypassing Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
The dispute will also add political weight to the Nabucco project, backed by both the EU and the United States, to pipe Caspian and Middle East gas to central Europe via Turkey, but there are doubts about finding enough gas to fill the pipeline.
None of these projects offers an early solution, given the long lead times and high cost. EU officials say they are not an “either/or”. There will be enough demand and enough gas to justify all three extra pipelines, they say.
In the shorter term, the capacity of existing pipelines can be expanded. But the main quick gains for European gas security would come from linking national networks into a single market and improving energy efficiency, especially in central Europe.
For previous columns by Paul Taylor, click here.