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Global Economy

What if Russia turns off the gas tap?

After the escalation in the Ukraine conflict, the EU Commission decided on financial sanctions against Russia. In the event of an attack, further punitive measures have been announced, including against the Russian energy sector. The federal government also reacted to Moscow's actions and announced the temporary end of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

An exciting question now remains as to how Russia will deal with the current and future sanctions. A complete halt to gas supplies to Western countries would be a drastic reaction, but one that cannot be ruled out. Could Germany do without Russian gas? "Yes, it can," said Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) today on Deutschlandfunk. There is a possibility that Germany will get enough gas and enough raw materials without supplies from Russia. But how secure would the supply really be?

Short-term supply probably secured

Because the fact is: in 2021, natural gas accounted for more than a quarter of the total primary energy consumption in Germany, according to figures from energy expert Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer. Only about 5.2 percent of the 1002.9 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) are subsidized in Germany. In addition to withdrawals, Germany imports by far the largest share (88.4 percent) from abroad – around half of it from Russia.

"Accordingly, a stop to the supply of Russian natural gas could not be fully compensated for, especially not in winter," explains the chairman of the Energy for Germany editorial group of the World Energy Council. Such a "worst case" was not included in precautionary considerations.

"Dependency is now very high"

"The dependency on Russian gas is now very high," says Andreas Loechel, Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics and Sustainability at the Ruhr University Bochum, in an interview with tagesschau.de. The country has been reducing deliveries for a long time. "But at least two-thirds of the gas that usually comes from Russia is still flowing." It could stay that way for the time being. So far, the reduction in deliveries has mainly been offset by imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). That causes problems with prices, but there are still no physical bottlenecks.

If the current deliveries from Russia were to be canceled, however, that could change, says the economist. Because then you would need even more LNG or natural gas from Norway and North Africa. In the short term, one would also have to go to the gas storage facilities, which are now normally filled again due to the milder temperatures in February.

"In view of the mild weather, we would probably get through the winter," estimates Schiffer. "The increased LNG deliveries create a certain balance." Germany is connected to its neighboring countries via the existing European pipeline network. In this respect, LNG can flow into the country via foreign terminals. "An increased supply of LNG would probably result in rising prices," emphasizes Schiffer. This can lead to a growing burden on consumers and, above all, on socially disadvantaged sections of the population. Habeck also restricted Deutschlandfunk that the costs of not using Russian gas are significantly higher prices.

"Big challenge"

The industry association of storage companies, the Energy Storage Initiative (INES), also assumes that the German gas supply would survive a failure of all Russian gas imports in the coming days and weeks. The condition is that the temperatures remain mild and that sufficient LNG is available for the EU internal market, said Association Managing Director Sebastian Bleschke. "Since such a situation has not yet occurred in the past, a certain degree of uncertainty remains."

Kerstin Andreae, head of the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), described a failure in Russian deliveries as "a major challenge that the federal government and the energy industry would then face". However, Europe's security mechanisms would provide special protection for households and various institutions through statutory provisions. Germany is not an island, but part of a European natural gas supply system in which the EU countries support each other when necessary.

"Contractually regulated switch-off agreements with industry or switching to other energy sources would also curb demand for gas," Andreae told the dpa news agency. In addition, Germany also obtains natural gas from other supplier countries. "Current calculations by the federal government show that Germany will probably get through the winter even if Russia were to completely stop its natural gas supplies. The situation would be difficult, but it can be mastered."

"In the Midst of a Fossil War"

In the medium and long term, however, the picture could look different. According to Schiffer, there are relatively large LNG import capacities in Europe, which cover around 40 percent of European gas requirements, which are utilized even more and could represent an alternative to Russian gas. However, the utilization of the exit capacities from the LNG terminals in Northwest Europe has increased significantly since December due to the high gas prices. Added to this is the largely exhausted availability of special tankers for transport.

In addition, a direct import of LNG from countries such as Qatar and the USA to Germany has not yet been possible. In the meantime, the plans for a first liquid gas terminal are becoming more concrete – but the approval process could take at least a year. "The natural gas quantities would therefore hardly be sufficient to replace a complete loss of Russian supplies," says the expert.

"If all fossil energy supplies are stopped, it will take considerable effort to compensate for them accordingly," says Claudia Kemfert, head of the Energy, Transport and Environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), compared to tagesschau.de. There is no question that Germany is "in a serious situation, in the middle of a fossil war." Germany can obtain part of the possible gas supplies from other sources. But if it gets really cold again, in the worst case the industry could have to cut consumption.

Will renewable energies help?

"The best answer to fossil energy wars is not to extend the lifespan of nuclear and coal, but to accelerate the energy transition with a faster expansion of renewable energies and significant energy savings," Kemfert continued. The expansion of renewable energies must have top priority. "Planning and expansion procedures should be accelerated with the justification of ensuring security of supply."

Faster expansion of renewable energies is definitely a good thing, agrees Schiffer. In terms of security of supply, however, this hardly helps. "They are mainly used to generate electricity. However, only twelve percent of the total domestic natural gas consumption goes into them anyway." The main consumers of natural gas are the heating market and industry. The expansion of hydrogen is an important strategy, but it also only helps when there is sufficient volume. "Previating the phase-out of coal to 2030 would certainly be counterproductive, especially since it would not result in any reduction in CO2 emissions across the EU," says the member of the Studies Committee of the London World Energy Council.

Kemfert has another suggestion: "We need a strategic gas reserve that, like oil, will supply us with gas for 90 days in an emergency. And we should buy back the gas storage facilities from Russia and manage them as state-owned companies so that we can supply ourselves adequately."

scenario unlikely

A stop in Russian deliveries is not yet foreseeable. According to environmental economist Loechel, no major changes in gas supplies are to be feared for the time being due to the contractual agreements. The gas industry in Germany has not yet seen any signs of supply bottlenecks from Russia. "We are currently not hearing any reports from our members that Russia is not fulfilling its obligations to its contractual partners," said Timm Kehler, Managing Director of the "Zukunft Gas" association. Russia has always been a reliable energy supplier over the past 50 years, including during the Cold War.

Yesterday at a forum of natural gas exporting countries, Putin emphasized that Russia is planning the "uninterrupted supply of the world markets with this raw material" – presumably also because of the economic effects. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), an energy embargo would hit Russia particularly hard. "Accordingly, a ban on gas trade would result in a slump in Russian economic output of almost three percent, and a ban on oil trade would result in a slump of a good one percent."

For Germany and the EU, the economic damage would be extremely small in both cases, according to the IfW. It is apparently irrelevant whether the EU imposes an import embargo or whether Russia decides on a delivery embargo. The reason for this is that the western allies would replace the missing imports from Russia with products from the alliance partners and Germany is particularly competitive here.

The stop of Nord Stream 2 also plays a rather minor role in the whole thing. "Nord Stream 2 may have a greater symbolic meaning than it actually does for the energy transition and security of supply in Germany," explains Loechel. The primary goal of the pipeline is cheap gas. Because enough lines are already in place. "Stopping the certification of North Stream 2 is correct. We don't need this pipeline, so it's not necessary to secure the energy supply," Kemfert also told tagesschau.de.

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