As expected, evidence surrounding the underwater explosions along the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea on Monday is leaning towards sabotage as the cause. And just as predictably, fingers in Europe and Washington are instinctively pointing east towards Russia. Two explosions caused large leaks in both undersea natural gas pipelines. The Nord Stream pipelines originate in Russia.
Now experts are trying to decipher the meaning behind the attacks while energy and security officials in Europe are now forced to deal with the possibility of further attacks on fuel infrastructure sites. Retired senior German intelligence official Gerhard Schindler told German news channel Welt that Russia is the only real suspect behind the attack. “An unnoticed, conspiratorial damage to pipelines at a depth of 80 meters in the Baltic Sea requires sophisticated technical and organizational capabilities that clearly point to a state actor. Only Russia can really be considered for this, especially since it stands to gain the most from this act of sabotage.”
What exactly can Moscow expect to gain from sabotaging its own natural gas pipelines, provided they are responsible? For starters, with Nordstream 1 now out of commission for an extended period because of the explosions, Europe is caught between two chairs. With winter approaching and concern about whether there will be sufficient energy supplies to get through the season, the eastern option is now completely off the table. This means that now European nations that are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, especially Germany, have to find new energy sources to replace what was permanently lost following Monday’s explosions and leaks.
Despite official claims by Berlin that its natural gas stockpile is robust, German officials continue to seek new energy sources for the short term with increasing urgency. Perhaps the German government miscalculated the stockpile numbers and Germany really does not have anywhere near sufficient natural gas available. If this turns out to be the case, expect the blowback from it to be decidedly unpleasant around Europe and the rest of the world.
For months European Union officials have claimed the Union should prepared if Russia decides to halt gas shipments to Europe indefinitely. However, Gazprom’s decision halt Nord Stream 1 deliveries, ostensibly due to needed turbine repairs, has shown the earlier EU confidence might’ve been premature. Energy markets are volatile right now with prices surging. If this was not bad enough, many European energy companies are facing margin calls at the worst possible time. Collateral cash is not available in the amounts needed, mainly owing to the volatility of energy markets, which has been sparked in-turn by the energy. The chips are down, and the red light is flashing on the continent as leaders and energy ministers try and come to terms with the crisis now staring directly at them.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned today that swift action must be taken to prevent a broad economic shutdown continent-wide. “A few weeks like this and the European economy will just go into a full stop. Recovering from that is going to be much more complicated than intervening in gas markets today. The risk of that is de-industrialization and severe risk of fundamental social unrest.” De Croo made these comments in an interview with Bloomberg. Tomorrow 27 EU energy ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss a plan for intervention in European energy markets. As some analysts have said earlier this week, Europe is now facing a “Lehman Event” and swift intervention could be the only tool strong enough to stave off major disaster.
Even though European officials continue to claim gas storage supplies are sufficient enough to get EU nations through the winter, there’s increasing worry that if even one member-state must resort to blackouts and other energy restrictions it will create a domino-effect throughout the entire EU. Given the current state of energy in Europe this is a very possible prospect once winter sets in.
With Germany in the midst of a deepening energy crisis German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is now calling for the construction of a pipeline which would reach from Portugal to Central Europe. Naturally, the goal of such a pipeline would be to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. Even though Germany and other European nations have made strides to shrink their dependence on gas shipments from Russia, it has become clear that reliance will not diminish before the winter season arrives. Scholz has broached the topic of a pipeline with the officials from Portugal, Spain, France and the European Union. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa has been pushing for the pipeline proposal to be examined by the EU since the early days of Russia’ invasion of Ukraine. Germany and other nations with a heavy reliance on Russian gas paid the issue little mind.
Now Germany appears intent to push the matter, even publicly admitting regret that a sincere effort was not made earlier. Of course, the geopolitical situation has changed. Now that Germany is anxiously seeking other sources for natural gas supplies, a pipeline from Portugal to Central Europe suddenly seems to be an ideal solution.
Unfortunately for Berlin, the energy troubles confronting Germany are not strictly limited natural gas. Water levels on the Rhine River dropped to a critical low on Friday. This will affect barge traffic on the river and subsequently restrict the flow of essential commodities to inland Europe even more. Not exactly welcome news and a firm indication that the energy crisis facing Europe is a long way from being brought under control.
With Gazprom 1 having announced another reduction in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline’s output to around twenty percent of its capacity, Germany and other Central European nations could be faced with having to make some unpalatable choices in the weeks to come. Service resumed on the pipeline last week following a ten-day maintenance period at roughly 40 percent capacity. Now that has been halved and the prospect of even deeper reductions is looming. Other nations in Central Europe are contending with reductions as well. Italy has been informed by Gazprom that the amount of gas it normally receives is being reduced as well. The Russian energy giant claims overall gas flow in the pipeline is lower because of technical concerns with one of the turbine engines. Germany claims this reason is a ‘made up pretext’ and the move is nothing less than a Russian powerplay.
Earlier in the week EU energy ministers announced support for a voluntary 15% reduction in natural gas usage. The plan has been somewhat watered-down following resistance from Southern European nations, but the 27 member-states have agreed to cut back on usage by the winter. The plan is an effort to make certain fuel supplies are adequate for the coming winter. Despite the claim by Brussels that the bloc is united in standing up to Russian energy strongarm tactics, objections by nations not reliant on Russian gas raise the prospect of a disunited front in the future.
In a somewhat ironic reversal of fortunes from ten years ago, now it is Southern European nations like Spain and Portugal chiding Germany for its failure to prepare and short-sighted thinking. They’re not wrong. Berlin ignored the warnings for quite some time as it became dependent on Russian gas. Therefore, the argument put forward by Madrid and Lisbon is that the Germans should carry the largest burden instead of nations whose economies are not reliant on Russian gas.
Yesterday’s declaration by state-owned Russian energy giant Gazprom that ‘unforeseeable circumstances’ could make it unable comply with European gas contracts is placing Germany in an even more precarious position. The prospect of Russia shutting down the flow of natural gas to Germany seems more probable. With Gazprom threatening to send less gas to Germany and other European nations, German firm Uniper, a major energy importer, has rejected the claim. According to a company spokesperson, Uniper rejects the force majeure claim put forward by Gazprom. Realistically, Uniper’s rejection does not change matters one way or another.
The Nord Stream 1 pipeline is scheduled to come off its 10-day maintenance period and resume operations on Thursday. It’s unclear if the pipeline will start operating at a reduced capacity, or at all. Despite Berlin claiming to have reduced its overall dependence on Russian gas from 55% to 35% it is still highly dependent on Nord Stream 1. The two other pipelines providing natural gas to Germany from Russia were closed off.
Many analysts still seem to agree that Nord Stream 1 will resume operations, albeit in a limited capacity, perhaps. However, Germany’s nightmare scenario of Putin halting gas deliveries entirely is haunting Berlin and Brussels. The nation is already falling behind efforts to top off its natural gas storage supplies before winter sets in. We discussed this in an earlier entry last week. Gas rationing and other conservation steps will have a detrimental effect on the German economy. A number of companies are concerned such measures will force them to close permanently.
Germany is not the only target either. A dozen EU nations have seen their gas supplies from Russia either severely reduced or cut off entirely. The lack of a European-based energy sharing plan and the shortsighted thinking of EU leaders on the energy-security front are now coming home to roost.