Europe is in the throes of an unprecedented energy crunch. Some call it a crisis, which, if not addressed, may be comparable to the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s – with dire economic, social and political consequences. Brent crude is at a 5 year high of $84 per barrel while spot natural gas prices are up more than 500% year-over-year, forcing highly polluting gas-to-coal switching and putting the brakes on the EU’s green energy transition. Resurgent energy demand post-Covid, extreme weather events (unprecedented heatwaves and prolonged winters), supply chain disruptions, and poor regional and global stockpiling have all contributed to Europe’s current crisis. Russia’s supremo Vladimir Putin may have a reason to pop a champagne bottle in view of the EU’s sanctions on the Kremlin. He says that Europe had created a self-inflicted wound. He may be right.
Per Samer Moses, Manager of Global LNG Analytics at S&P Global Platts:
“Europe finds itself between a rock and a hard place. With global liquified natural gas (LNG) markets tight for nearly a year, and Russia facing its own upstream and infrastructure issues, Europe’s two key sources of flexible gas supply have not shown up. Given just how depleted the region’s storage situation is, any tremble of bullish news, be it weather or supply outage, has the power to send markets in search of ever higher price anchors, with fundamentals dictating the market will need to balance on demand destruction, a dynamic already being seen in industry across both Asia and Europe.”
This unfortunate confluence of factors – rare as it may be – illustrates the concerns of many energy experts (this author included) about Europe’s hasty transition away from traditional baseload powers sources (gas, coal, and nuclear) to intermittent renewable generation. Europe’s master plan for carbon neutrality has pushed the member states away from long-term purchase agreements and towards short-term pricing, making the crisis even more costly to energy utilities and other consumers who are now seeking alternative fuel sources. Gas exporters like Russia and Qatar are ready to cash in.
The Qatari Energy Minister, Saad Al-Kaabi stated, “we have huge demand from all our customers and unfortunately, we can’t cater for everyone.” Qatar prefers East Asian customers who pay a premium. The EU is no longer the top market. This trend is consistent with exporters around the globe. Coupled with a decrease in domestic production, such as the depletion of the giant Groningen gas field in the Netherlands, the EU is left to bid higher and higher for imports. This coincides with overall uptick in demand for LNG across the globe in an effort to use it as a bridging fuel away from hydrocarbons.
At the same time, China, too, is in the throes of an energy crisis aggravated by unprecedented flooding across the country, post-Covid supply chain disruptions, and resurgent demand. To compensate for the lack of domestic coal production China has doubled their LNG imports over the last year (another reason Europe finds itself with lower than normal supplies). More than 20 provinces have enacted rationing to deal with the worsening situation. “Get energy supplies at any price”, ordered the ruling Politburo, highlighting the giant economy’s dependence on imported coal and gas.
Russia – though appears not to be an outright market manipulator – is well positioned to benefit from the unfolding market conditions as Europe seeks out any and all gas supplies at outrageous prices. Indeed, the gas shortage is being used by the Kremlin to tout the necessity of Nord Stream 2, an ambitious (and highly controversial) geostrategic gambit by the Kremlin to pump 55 bcm of gas directly into Germany via undersea pipe. The project may be framed by certain German manufacturers and Russian policymakers as a boon for Europe’s energy security, but the reality is the pipeline will only make the EU more dependent on – and vulnerable too – the whims of Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.
A while ago, CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller, stated in my presence that his company is “half a business, and half a state policy arm.” Since then the shift is probably to 40-60 in favor of the state.
European leaders were quick to claim that Russia is now weaponizing the gas markets to gain approval of the Nord Stream 2. Currently, Gazprom sends piped natural gas through Ukraine. A new pipeline would circumvent the embattled country. By law, Russian energy producers must satisfy domestic demand prior to exporting, meaning that a missing volume of exports could be attributed to domestic stockpile shortages.
IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol has claimed that “Russia could do more to increase gas availability to Europe and ensure storage is filled to adequate levels in preparation for the coming winter heating season.” Birol went on to say a further 15% could be supplied by Russia immediately.
A staunch pro-Russia actor, former chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder published an article claiming that the Russian government is incapable of manipulating the markets: “Anyone who conducts a serious study states: the reasons for the rise in prices should be sought in the international market – increased demand, global trends in the world market, and weather.”
As the EU sought to decarbonize their energy infrastructure, Brussels failed to establish a reliable baseline capacity for electricity generation. Today, without the ample nuclear, coal, and gas power stations, Europe would be a dark and cold place indeed. Moreover, they lack sources of energy for low renewable periods like the “windless summer” of this past year in the UK. Low wind speeds and cloud cover are becoming more unpredictable as climate change progresses, and the lack of baseload generation has resulted in the current crisis.
Some of the reactions were to purchase alternative fuels such as coal, a fuel source that produces double the carbon emissions of natural gas. This defeats the purpose of energy transformation.
The United Kingdom, France and Spain have all issued new price ceilings. France has gone a step further and announced a 1 billion euro investment in nuclear power by the end of the decade. Better late than never.
Germany, despite all rationality, will decommissioned nearly all its reactors next year, while betting on wind and solar, and may soon be forced to bend knee to Russia, and therefore Lord Putin, by embracing Nord Stream 2, for their energy needs. Jack Sharples, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies had this to say:
“The only way that we will know that for sure is if we see that [Russia] suddenly pull some spare gas out of their back pocket that we didn’t know they had as soon as the Nord Stream 2 commercial operation is approved… Conversely, if/when Nord Stream 2 is approved and launched, we suddenly see gas transit via Ukraine drop to very low levels, that could be an indicator that Gazprom really don’t have anything spare and that actually the purpose of Nord Stream 2 is to simply displace Ukraine.”
Depending on Russia to fill the energy supply gap is a risky proposition. But perhaps even more short-sighted is Europe’s unwillingness to partner with the United States beyond short-term contracts. Refusal to engage in long-term purchase agreements has led Europe to fall behind Asia as America’s top destination for LNG.
The energy crisis unfolding in Europe has many drivers, but EU green policy hubris, and Russian hard-nosed energy poker are the key. The main lesson is: one cannot will energy transformation into reality without building ample, reliable and economically viable baseline generation capacity.
With assistance from Sean Moroney and Sarah Shinton