The Ukraine crisis prompts Europe to push for a secure energy supply

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MADRID (AP) – Rising energy prices and fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine are making European leaders ponder intensely about energy security – particularly their decades-long dependence on Moscow for natural gas.

The crisis highlights Europe’s vulnerability after years of limited progress in completing an “Energy Union” – a 2015 vision that would see affordable gas and electricity flow across borders, while diversifying suppliers and meeting climate targets. With renewable energies like solar and wind slowly being rolled out and coal and other fossil fuels being phased out, Europe still needs natural gas and it depends on Russia to get it.

This became evident as Europe’s gas supplies fell and prices rose, partly because Russia sold less than normal gas and put households and businesses under pressure with rising costs.

With gas reserves low and fears war could disrupt pipeline flows from Russia, the EU is focused on getting liquefied natural gas, or LNG, by ship from the United States, Qatar, Algeria and elsewhere until renewables catch up. Environmentalists fear that even short-term priorities could set back Europe’s goals to move away from fossil fuels.

Doubling the share of renewable energy would help reduce dependence on Russian gas, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said on Monday, but reiterated that energy security was crucial. An advisory group on coordinating EU gas security of supply met on Tuesday because “it is important that contingency plans are in place for the worst-case scenario,” she said.

The 27-nation EU is “on the safe side for this winter” but is doing “everything possible to get rid of this dependency,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference. She accused Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom of “deliberately trying to store and supply as little as possible while prices and demand are skyrocketing.”

Russia has fulfilled long-term contracts but failed to sell additional gas on the spot market as it pushes for German approval of its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to solve Europe’s gas shortages. Germany has suspended the process to certify the pipeline, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday after Russia recognized the independence of separatist regions in Ukraine, which could allow troops to be deployed.

“We are aware of the low gas resources in European countries,” Russian Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov told a forum of gas producers in Qatar on Tuesday, according to a provided English translation. He said that long-term gas contracts are helping to curb price volatility and that Russian energy companies are “fully committed” to fulfilling existing agreements.

In a conflict, security analysts say Russia would have little interest in a full gas shutdown, which would deprive it of revenue and give Europe another incentive to find other energy sources.

Countries like Lithuania and Poland have managed to reduce Russian gas imports. But Russia provides more than a third of the EU’s supply, and its dominance is entrenched in the Baltic states, Germany, Italy and parts of south-eastern Europe.

The key point is that the 27 EU countries retain extensive control over energy policy. Conflicting regulations and standards make it difficult to move gas from one country’s system to another, even when the grid is actually in place. Energy companies transporting gas across borders, for example, are sometimes charged tariffs more than once or twice.

“Unfortunately, energy connectivity in Europe is an unresolved issue,” Miguel Arias Cañete, a former EU energy and climate commissioner who oversaw a proposal for more gas infrastructure, told The Associated Press.

“Especially in times of crisis, we see the need for market integration and sufficient infrastructure from a security and procurement perspective,” he said, adding that the focus on renewable energy must not neglect the role of natural gas.

After Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, energy diversification to reduce Russia’s dependency was enshrined in the EU’s 2015 Energy Union plan. Since then there have been some significant advances: more two-way pipeline connections have been built and more LNG import terminals are planned.

A new pipeline transports gas from Azerbaijan to Western Europe via Turkey and Greece. There is also a planned pipeline extension from north-east Greece to southern Bulgaria, which would reduce Bulgaria’s full dependence on Russian gas. And Greece is moving forward with plans to build a facility to receive LNG imported by sea.

But the networking of the European energy markets has not succeeded “sufficiently well”, said energy policy expert Simone Tagliapietra, Senior Fellow at the Bruegel Think Tank in Brussels. In particular, a pipeline link from Spain to France was put on hold, leaving “a major bottleneck that we couldn’t solve,” he said. Now gas industry groups are talking about reviving the idea.

After the Crimean crisis, the priority shifted from energy security to climate change, leading to the EU’s Green Deal 2019, a far-reaching plan to reduce emissions.

“Energy security is gone,” Tagliapietra said. “It was about sustainability, decarbonization. Now we see the big comeback of energy security as an issue in Europe.”

The issue seems increasingly pressing among newer, eastern EU members with bitter memories of Russian dominance during the Cold War.

Poland is working on pipeline links with neighboring countries, including the Baltic Pipe, which is set to deliver Norwegian gas to Denmark and others from 2023. The country has also built the Swinoujscie LNG port on the Baltic Sea near the German border. Since 2015, the facility has helped reduce gas imports from Russia via the Yamal pipeline by a third to less than 60% of total gas imports.

Polish authorities have vowed not to renew the Yamal deal when it expires next year, and are relying on more LNG from countries like the US, Qatar and Australia.

But billions of dollars in investments in more pipelines or import terminals risk becoming obsolete in the long-term shift to renewable energy, Tagliapietra said. Instead, Europe could require gas companies to start the winter with adequate storage capacity, he said.

Russia’s Gazprom failed to fill its underground storage facility in Europe last summer. “It’s up to them to decide and that’s not acceptable,” Tagliapietra said.

Governments are also talking about creating a strategic gas reserve, either shared by several countries or organized at EU level. Energy-consuming countries have been doing this with crude oil since the 1970s.

Environmentalists say the solution isn’t more gas, but measures to boost renewable energy.

“It’s a bit surreal and surprising,” said Elif Gündüzyeli, a fossil fuel political activist at the Climate Action Network. “This approach of putting more gas on the grid to solve the energy supply problem is a bit like adding another lane to a freeway to solve the traffic problem: more cars come in and it gets even more complicated.”

“I don’t think that breaking away from Russia and clinging to the US will solve the EU’s energy security problems,” she said. “And it definitely doesn’t solve the urgency of the climate.”

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McHugh reported from Frankfurt, Germany. Associated Press writer Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece; Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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