Talking point

Gas supplies: will Vladimir Putin turn off the taps?

It’s going to be an ‘ugly’ winter as Europe prepares for energy austerity

“Is Europe now on the brink of a new age of energy austerity,” asked Thomas Fazi on UnHerd. Several European nations are considering dimming or switching off public lights, or even adopting “energy curfews”, which would force the early closure of businesses and public offices. The city of Hanover in Germany has cut off hot water in all its public buildings, swimming pools, sports halls and gyms. These measures were devised to meet an EU-wide gas reduction plan, Save Gas for a Safe Winter, to reduce consumption by 15% until next spring – a belated response to Russia’s reduction of gas exports, which are at about a third of last year’s levels.

Germany, which before the war got over half of its gas from Russia, is on the front line: more than 15% of its industrial companies have already had to reduce production. It goes without saying, however, that a further decrease in Russian gas flows, particularly during winter, would have “catastrophic consequences”. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, warned that it “could spark popular uprisings”. 

Putin will probably keep decreasing the gas, “in the hope that Europe panics about what lies ahead”, said Patrick Wintour in The Guardian. The EU is preparing itself: hoping to fill 80% of its storage capacity by October, and scouring the world for alternative sources. But the fact that some countries “are more exposed to Russian intimidation than others” means that it has struggled to present a united front. Russia, by contrast, is making hay. Russian gas exports fell by a quarter in June compared with last year, but earnings rose to $11.1bn from $3.6bn. 

UK could see ‘significant unmet demand’

Britain has better energy security than most European nations, but it’s not invulnerable either, said David Sheppard in the FT. If Moscow cuts off the supplies, the UK is likely to face shortages too, because it’s part of the wider European market. A study by the Department for Business found that if that happened, the UK could see “significant unmet demand”: factories, possibly even homes, could be cut off. 

Either way, we are going to face a big financial hit, said The Times. Analysts expect the energy price cap to reach £3,500 per year for a typical dual-use tariff in October. Families can expect to spend more than a quarter of their post-tax incomes on energy this winter. “There are few quick fixes,” said Juliet Samuel in The Daily Telegraph. Fracking, increased North Sea production and new nuclear plants are years away. In the short-term, we ought to be at the front of the queue for long-term gas contracts with reliable suppliers, and we should be insulating homes as fast as we can. But whatever happens, it’s going to be an “ugly” winter.

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