EU orders 15% gas savings to prepare for Russian energy shortfall in winter

Ursula von der Leyen says total shutdown of imports from Russia is a 'likely scenario'

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had to be ready for a total Russian gas cut-off. Reuters
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The European Union on Wednesday told its members to cut their gas consumption by 15 per cent this winter to prevent a social and economic disaster if Russia turns off the tap.

Countries will be told to switch to alternative energy sources, including coal and oil if necessary, and encourage savings by households, industry, power suppliers and public buildings to get Europe through a tough winter.

The volume of gas coming from Russia is already alarmingly low after the war in Ukraine poisoned the EU's relations with its main fossil fuel provider, and there are fears that Moscow could soon call a complete halt.

“Russia is using gas as a weapon,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who said a total stoppage of imports from state-owned supplier Gazprom was a “likely scenario”.

“Whether it's a partial major cut-off of Russian gas or total cut-off, Europe needs to be ready,” she said. “We learnt from the pandemic that if we act in unity, we can address any crisis.”

German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, who holds the energy portfolio in Berlin, welcomed the EU's call for energy savings and said: "We have to work on it with all our strength."

The 15 per cent target will apply from August to March and EU countries will be required to draw up emergency plans by September showing how they plan to meet it.

In 16 pages of guidance to member states, EU officials say industries could be incentivised to switch to cleaner fuels, heating and air conditioning turned down in public buildings, and smart systems installed to lower demand.

Prolonging the life of coal plants that were due to be dismantled for environmental reasons can be done as a last resort if they are “short-term temporary measures and reversible”, the guidance said.

The measures will be voluntary at first but could be made mandatory if the commission declares a “Union Alert” under new legal proposals, which will need signing off by the EU's 27 states.

In that event, households and hospitals would be shielded from enforced energy cuts, but private consumers were told that “everyone can contribute to saving gas”.

“Managed energy savings in all sectors of the economy today will be much less costly than rushed curtailment of industrial production tomorrow,” the commission said.

The EU has told members to fill their gas storage tanks to 80 per cent by winter. AP

Russian gas imports are already much lower than usual after supplies were stopped to countries including Finland, Poland and Bulgaria and the main pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 1, was closed for maintenance.

The Nord Stream repairs are meant to finish on Thursday but Germany was still waiting anxiously to see whether gas flows would resume. The country has turned to an array of energy-saving measures to prepare for a possible cut-off.

For the EU as a whole, imports from Russia in June were only 30 per cent of what would typically be expected, said the commission, which has told countries to fill their storage tanks to 80 per cent by November.

Gas savings constitute one of four strands of the EU's response to the energy problems caused by the war. It is also seeking alternative gas suppliers, investing in renewable energy and looking to link up its power grids more effectively.

Imports from outside Russia were up by 35 billion cubic metres in the first half of this year, compared with the same period in 2021, thanks to a mixture of liquid gas deals and pipeline imports from the UK, Norway, Azerbaijan and North Africa.

Updated: July 20, 2022, 3:09 PM