Gas has started to flow at reduced levels from Russia to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline after fears a scheduled shutdown for maintenance work would be used as a pretext to permanently close off the supply.
However, the resumption at an estimated 40% of supplies is insufficient to keep an energy crisis at bay in Europe this winter, experts said.
Initial reports of the taps being turned back on at 6am local time said only that the natural gas was flowing but not by how much. In data provided by Gazcom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, to Gascade, the German operator of the Nord Stream 1 line, 530 gigawatt hours (GWh) was expected to be delivered during the course of Thursday.
Klaus Müller, head of the energy regulator Bundesnetzagentur, said this was 30% of the normal delivery level, but later revised that figure to 40%.
In Berlin and Brussels it is thought that Russia is deliberately squeezing supplies in order to avenge western sanctions introduced as punishment over 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.
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 which 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.
Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, has talked of a “nightmare scenario” facing Europe, especially Germany, Europe’s largest economy.
Habeck has talked 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 which 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 receive what level of supplies.
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 this is far from being ruled out altogether.
There has been a rush in Germany to diversify, including boosting renewable energy supplies, but Germany continues to remain dependent on Russia for about a third of its supplies, while France is dependent on it for about a fifth.
Last year, before the current crisis, Russia supplied 40% of the EU’s total gas supplies, while in Germany, the level was as high as 55%. Germany has since cut its dependency to about 30-35%.
German gas supplies in storage facilities around the country stood at 65% on Wednesday. The goal was to have filled them to 90% by the start of November in order to get through the winter.
Von der Leyen said on Wednesday: “Russia is blackmailing us … Russia is using energy as a weapon and therefore in any event, whether it is a partial major cutoff of Russian gas or total cutoff … Europe needs to be ready.”
Spectators of the issue in Russian media say Vladimir Putin’s supporters have gleefully observed how, by controlling the supply of energy to Europe, Moscow has effectively taken the continent hostage, including contributing 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, which was meant to reinforce European energy security, but operation of which was halted by the German government in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Germany had put pressure on Canada earlier this month to ride around Russian sanctions in order to return the Siemens turbine, which was undergoing maintenance in Montreal, in the hope Moscow could not use it as a pretext for not resuming supplies. The exact whereabouts of the turbine, which was to be delivered to Germany and from there travel to Russia, is being kept under wraps but despite Russia’s insistence otherwise, German operators of the pipeline say it is not vital to ensure the current flow of gas.