Key Russia-Europe gas pipeline reopens but outlook unclear

July 21, 2022 GMT
The sun rises behind the landfall facility of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the Baltic Sea Pipeline Link, in Lubmin, Germany, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
The sun rises behind the landfall facility of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the Baltic Sea Pipeline Link, in Lubmin, Germany, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
The sun rises behind the landfall facility of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the Baltic Sea Pipeline Link, in Lubmin, Germany, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
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The sun rises behind the landfall facility of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the Baltic Sea Pipeline Link, in Lubmin, Germany, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
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The sun rises behind the landfall facility of the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline and the transfer station of the OPAL gas pipeline, the Baltic Sea Pipeline Link, in Lubmin, Germany, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN (AP) — Natural gas started flowing through a major pipeline from Russia to Europe on Thursday after a 10-day shutdown for maintenance — but the gas flow remained well short of full capacity and the outlook was uncertain, which leaves Europe still facing the prospect of a hard winter.

Deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic Sea resumed at 40% of capacity, the level they had been at for weeks before annual maintenance. The German government announced that it would step up its gas storage requirements and take further measures to save gas.

The pipeline had been closed since July 11 for maintenance. Amid growing tensions over Russia’s war in Ukraine, German officials had feared that the pipeline — the country’s main source of Russian gas, which recently has accounted for around a third of Germany’s gas supplies — might not reopen at all.

But the gas deliveries that were arriving still weren’t enough to resolve Europe’s energy crisis, and officials suspect that Russia is likely to disrupt supplies further. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said the reduced supply “speaks a clear political language and confirms that we can’t rely on deliveries.”

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“The outlook is simply extremely volatile,” said Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany’s network regulator. “We must save more to get through the next two winters well.”

Russia’s state-owned Gazprom reduced the flow through Nord Stream 1 by 60% in mid-June, citing alleged technical problems involving equipment that partner Siemens Energy sent to Canada for overhaul and couldn’t be returned because of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Canadian government earlier this month gave permission for the turbine to be delivered to Germany.

The German government has rejected Gazprom’s technical explanation for the gas reduction, charging repeatedly that it was only a pretext for the Kremlin’s political decision to sow uncertainty and further push up energy prices. It has said the turbine was a replacement that was only supposed to be installed in September.

“Russia is using the great power it has — too great a power, which we gave Russia — to blackmail Europe,” said Habeck, who is also the economy minister and responsible for energy. He said of the turbine: “Sometimes one has the impression that Russia doesn’t want to take it back at all.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that Gazprom still hadn’t received the relevant documents for the turbine’s return, and questioned the quality of the repair work. Putin said Gazprom would shut another turbine for repairs in late July, and if the one that was sent to Canada wasn’t returned by then, the flow of gas to Germany would decline even further.

Habeck said the turbine was in Germany at the beginning of this week, and German authorities will say when it has reached Russia and been handed over to Gazprom.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday underlined Moscow’s insistence that Nord Stream 1 was not operating at full capacity due to “technical problems” that he blamed on European sanctions.

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But Simone Tagliapietra, an energy policy expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said Russia was playing a “strategic game.”

“Keeping low flows going is better than cutoff. It decreases Europe’s resolve to reduce gas demand,” he said. He warned that Europe must go into crisis mode anyway “because an interruption is likely to happen in the winter. And each cubic meter of gas saved now makes Europe more resilient in the next months.”

The European Commission proposed this week that its 27 nations cut their gas use by 15% over the coming months as the bloc braces for a possible full Russian cutoff of gas supplies.

Germany and the rest of Europe are scrambling to fill gas storage in time for winter and reduce their dependence on Russian energy imports. Germany has Europe’s biggest economy; gas is important to power its industries, provide heating and, to some extent, generate electricity.

Last month, the government activated the second phase of Germany’s three-stage emergency plan for natural gas supplies, warning that Europe’s biggest economy faced a “crisis” and winter storage targets were at risk. As of Thursday, Germany’s gas storage was 65.1% full.

Habeck said the government is tightening storage requirements to ensure that storage facilities aren’t tapped for gas. There will be a new requirement for storage to be 75% full by Sept. 1 and the targets for October and November will be raised to 85% and 95% respectively, from 80% and 90% at present.

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The government plans to ban the heating of private pools with gas. It wants to encourage energy saving in public buildings and offices, arguing that spaces where people don’t regularly spend time shouldn’t be heated. And it wants to suspend requirements in some private housing contracts for tenants to heat rooms to a minimum temperature.

To make up for shortfalls, the German government has given the green light for utility companies to fire up 10 dormant coal-fired power plants and six that are oil-fueled. Another 11 coal-fired power plants scheduled to be shut down in November will be allowed to keep operating.

Habeck said Thursday that dormant lignite-fired power plants also will be cleared for reactivation starting in October. And trains transporting oil and coal could be given priority.

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