Fearing Russian cutoff, Europeans are asked to ration natural gas
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff
Europe must drastically cut its use of natural gas immediately, and by a total of 15% between now and the spring, to prevent a major crisis as Russia slashes gas exports, the European Union’s executive branch said Wednesday, calling for hard sacrifices by the people of the world’s richest group of nations.
“Russia is blackmailing us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as she introduced the EU plan to reduce gas consumption. “Russia is using energy as a weapon.”
Months before it invaded Ukraine in February, upending energy markets and other facets of the global economy, “Russia kept gas supply intentionally as low as possible despite the high gas prices,” she said.
The flow of Russian gas, which provides 40% of EU consumption, was less than one-third the normal average in June. Gas storage facilities in Europe, normally almost full at this time of year in preparation for winter, are not sufficiently stocked to deal with such volatility and shortages, threatening to upend industry and private lives alike.
“We have to prepare for a potential full disruption of Russian gas, and this is a likely scenario,” von der Leyen said.
The EU has already banned most imports of Russian oil, after painstaking negotiations this spring among the 27 member states that made exceptions for some small countries such as Hungary and Slovakia. The plan to cut gas use is expected to be much easier to adopt when EU energy ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday, because unlike the oil embargo, it does not require unanimity.
If member nations agree to the plan and the new legislation that goes with it, the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, would ultimately be able to force countries to stick to gas consumption limits if they fail to do so voluntarily. The commission’s proposal did not specify what enforcement mechanism would be used.
European public opinion is split over whether supporting Ukraine is worth the sacrifice, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia is counting on Europeans being unwilling to pay a high price for Ukrainian freedom, and pressuring their leaders to strike a deal with Moscow.
Still, public fatigue with Europe’s support of Ukraine may be overstated. A poll in Germany, the largest EU nation and the one most reliant on Russian gas imports, last week found that only 22% of respondents wanted their government to curb support to Ukraine to bring down energy prices; 70% said they wanted the German government to continue strongly backing Ukraine despite the economic fallout.