Germany tables new emergency measures after Russian gas supply only partly restored

Germany’s economics minister has announced a new wave of emergency measures to cut the country’s consumption of gas after flows from Russia through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline resumed at reduced levels following a scheduled shutdown.

Robert Habeck said deliveries of gas from Russia cannot be relied upon and called on the nation to pull together to save energy. The new measures include requesting bosses to allow home working wherever possible so as to enable heating systems in larger buildings to be turned off, a legal obligation to get rid of inefficient heating systems, and a ban on using gas to heat private pools.

Fears that Russia would use the shutdown for maintenance work as a pretext to permanently close off the supply were unfounded, but experts said the resumption at an estimated 40% of supplies would not prevent an energy crisis in Europe this winter.

Complicating efforts to present a united front against Russia by EU members, Hungary’s government appeared to act unilaterally on Thursday when its foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, travelled to Moscow to discuss buying more gas.

“In order to ensure the security of Hungary’s energy supply, the government has decided to purchase an additional 700m cubic metres of natural gas in addition to the quantities stipulated in the long-term contracts,” the ruling Fidesz party said in a statement on Facebook.

Habeck said corridors and hallways in public buildings should remain unheated wherever possible and that chimney sweeps would be expected to check that a household’s heating systems were running as efficiently as possible.

The minister said he did not intend to introduce a “heat police” to check up on households, as he believed people could be relied on to act responsibly, but he warned that Europe would need “considerable staying power”, and he expected the challenge to span two winters.

In Berlin and Brussels it is thought that Russia is deliberately squeezing supplies in order to avenge western sanctions introduced in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Gazprom has in recent weeks cut flows to Germany via Nord Stream 1 by 60%, citing the absence of a Siemens gas turbine, which was being repaired in Canada. A spokesperson for the German ministry of economy said on Wednesday there was “no technical justification” for the reduction in deliveries after the completion of the maintenance work.

Berlin has been awaiting the end of the works with trepidation since the 11 July shutdown, with an expectation that either the gas would be cut off completely or reduced. Experts have said an energy crisis in Europe is unavoidable under the current circumstances.

The European Commission called on Wednesday for EU countries to reduce demand for natural gas by 15% over the foreseeable future in an attempt to boost winter stocks of gas and to defeat what the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, referred to as “blackmail” by Russia.

gas supply Europe network

Member states were also asked to give Brussels the power to introduce compulsory energy rationing, which would allow a prioritisation of supplies in case Russia cut off gas to Europe altogether.

Led by the IMF, warnings of a catastrophic impact on the European economy that could plunge some countries into recession are widespread, starting with the closing of factories and including restricting heat in households. Considerably higher energy costs and consumer prices are already a reality, but are predicted to worsen.

Habeck has talked of a “nightmare scenario” facing Europe, especially Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

Habeck, who is currently dealing with the crisis from his home, having contracted coronavirus, has spoken of the steps he has taken to reduce his personal energy consumption, including taking shorter showers and turning off lights, just as German consumers and municipalities have been urged to do. This is all part of a three-part emergency gas crisis plan that was triggered earlier this year.

The third and final part of the plan would be a dramatic step involving intervening in the internal market to specify which industries received what level of supplies.

Among the new measures announced by Habeck on Thursday, companies are to be banned from selling gas that they have already stored under what he called a “use it or lose it” policy. His ministry will also activate a reserve of lignite power plants to reduce gas consumption for power generation in just over two months’ time, so that the lignite-fired plants can also return to the electricity market, replacing natural gas power plants, he said.

His ministry also announced that Germany is to receive LNG as planned, via four floating gas terminals which have been leased by the federal government, two of which are scheduled to be in operation by the end of the year.

Earlier this month Habeck announced the resumption of highly polluting coal-fire power plants, which had been mothballed. Germany has stopped short of reversing a decision to halt nuclear power production, which will be phased out by the end of the year, but the move has not been ruled out altogether.

There has been a rush in Germany to diversify, including boosting renewable energy supplies, but Berlin continues to remain dependent on Moscow for about a third of its supplies, while France is dependent on it for about a fifth.

German gas supplies in storage facilities around the country stood at 65% on Wednesday. The goal had been to have filled them to 90% by the start of November in order to get through the winter. On Thursday, however, Klaus Müller, head of the energy regulator Bundesnetzagentur, said the targets were being revised upwards, due to the urgency of the situation.

Observers of Russian media say Vladimir Putin’s supporters are gleeful that Moscow, by controlling the supply of energy to Europe, has in effect taken the continent hostage and contributed to social unrest and political infighting and uncertainty.

Earlier this week, at the height of what has resembled a game of cat and mouse, Moscow taunted Germany, saying supplies could as an alternative flow through Nord Stream 2, a completed, ready-to-run, multibillion euro pipeline to accompany Nord Stream 1 that was meant to reinforce European energy security. Its operation was halted by the German government in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.