BRUSSELS -- European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the 27-nation European Union needs to make emergency plans to prepare for a complete cut-off of Russian gas in the wake of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
“It is obvious: (Russian President Vladimir) Putin continues to use energy as a weapon. This is why the Commission is working on a European emergency plan,” she told legislators in Strasbourg, France.
The EU has already imposed sanctions on Russia, including on some energy supplies, and is steering away from Kremlin-controlled deliveries. But the head of the EU's executive branch said the bloc needed to be ready for shock disruptions coming from Moscow, and said the first plans would be presented by the middle of the month.
“If worst comes to worst, then we have to be prepared,” she said, hoping to avoid the chaotic scenes, and the my-country-first attitude that some member states showed early on in the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Energy, and the prospect of a winter without enough heating for homes or power to keep factories going, could now pose a similar challenge to EU solidarity and a source for populist-spawned division.
“It is very important to have a European overview and a coordinated approach to a potential complete cut off of Russian gas,” von der Leyen said. A dozen members have already been hit by reductions or full cuts in gas supplies as the political standoff with Moscow over the Ukraine invasion intensifies.
Highlighting the potential challenges ahead, Germany said last week it suspects that Russia may not resume natural gas deliveries to Europe through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline after planned maintenance work in July, complicating the outlook for this winter.
Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom blamed a technical problem for the reduction in gas flowing through Nord Stream 1, which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. The company said equipment maintenance was affected by Western sanctions.
European Union countries already agreed last month that all natural gas storage in the 27-nation bloc should be topped up to at least 80% capacity for next winter to avoid shortages during the cold season. The new regulation also says underground gas storage on EU soil will need to be filled to 90% capacity before the 2023-24 winter.
Von der Leyen said that the storage stood at 55% a week ago, adding that liquefied natural gas deliveries from the United States had already tripled.
The war in Ukraine has prompted the 27-nation bloc to rethink its energy policies and sever ties with Russian fossil fuels. Member countries have agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil by year-end in addition to a ban on imports of Russian coal that will start in August.
The EU has not included gas — a fuel used to power factories and generate electricity — in its own sanctions for fear of seriously harming the European economy. Before the war in Ukraine, it relied on Russia for 25% of its oil and 40% of its natural gas.
To slash its use of Russian energy, the European Commission has been diversifying suppliers.
In the meantime, the average monthly import of Russian pipeline gas is declining by 33% compared with last year, von der Leyen said as she called for a speedy transition toward renewable sources of energy.
“Some say, in the new security environment after Russia’s aggression, we have to slow down the green transition. This transition would come at the ‘the cost of basic security,’ they say. The opposite is true. If we all do nothing but compete about limited fossil fuels, the prices will further explode and fill Putin’s war chest," she said. “Renewables are home-grown. They give us independence from Russian fossil fuels. They are more cost-efficient. And they are cleaner."
The EU Council agreed last month to raise the share of renewables in the bloc’s energy mix to at least 40% by 2030 — up from the previous target of 32%. In addition, a 9% energy consumption reduction target for 2030 will become binding on all EU member states for the first time.