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Wednesday, 2 March 2022

The Ukraine war is forcing a rethink of energy supply markets

The EU is preparing to redraw its energy supply map as war rages in Ukraine. Europe is reliant on Russia for around a third of its natural gas — but given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new status as an out-and-out warmonger, the bloc is now looking to change that state of affairs, permanently. The European Commission is set to unveil a plan to reduce reliance on Russian energy imports next week, the New Scientist reports.

The supply switch could take years to enact — but Europe is also preparing to replace Russian gas fast if need be. The EU is drawing up contingencies for a supply-shock scenario where Russia turns off the gas taps to Europe in retaliation for Western sanctions, Bloomberg reports. EU energy ministers earlier this week held an emergency meeting to discuss their energy plan-B if Russian gas drops off the menu, though Russia has made no signs as of yet that it is seriously considering that option.

Europe would have to cut demand by at least 10-15% if Russia decides to suspend imports altogether — but if the country fulfills its long-term contracts with the EU, “depleted storage could easily be replenished before the next heating season,” Bloomberg reports, citing a study by Belgium-based think tank Bruegel. That said, making the switch to alternative suppliers won’t come without a cost, which could run as high as EUR 70 bn — seven times more than in previous years.

For now, Russian supply continues to flow — but try telling that to the markets. While Western sanctions have so far spared the vital energy sector, uncertainty over the war has sent the price of basic commodities soaring, and oil is no exception. Buyers are reportedly shunning Russian oil altogether, with tenders failing to attract any bids even when offered with deep price reductions, according to Bloomberg. Brent crude is currently trading at USD 111.88 per barrel.

The US is stepping in to try and calm prices: Members of the International Energy Agency will deploy 60 mn barrels of emergency oil stockpiles in a bid to bring prices back down to earth. The US will contribute half the amount from its strategic reserve, President Joe Biden confirmed in his State of the Union address last night.

But don’t expect OPEC+ to do much: The cartel is expected to offer another round of gradual supply increases at its meeting today, as members are already struggling to meet production targets as they currently stand. (Plus: Russia is OPEC’s second largest member and will presumably be more than happy to watch its Western foes sweat.)

Looking ahead, the loss of Russian supply could imperil green targets: Germany is mulling extending use of coal to replace Russian gas, said Robert Habeck, vice chancellor and minister for economy and energy, Bloomberg reports. Coal plants in the country — which gets more than half of its gas from Russia — could run beyond 2030, when Germany had targeted to phase out the fossil fuel.

EU leadership has insisted that the best path forward would be to accelerate the use of renewables — and the plan set to be unveiled next week will reportedly include a target to reduce fossil fuel use by 40% come 2030, according to the Washington Post. But while Habeck said transitioning to clean energy remains the ultimate goal, his first priority is to release Germany of dependency on Russian supply.

Algeria has apparently thrown its hat into the ring as an alternative supplier: A Spanish government minister has said the North African nation is ready to step up exports to Europe if supplies from Moscow are disrupted, Bloomberg reports — while pointing out that the OPEC member’s exports have stalled in recent years, and that current capacity is already tied up in long-term contracts with European buyers.

What about us? Egypt last week held talks with the EU over shipping more natural gas to Europe as worries ratcheted up over Ukraine, though we’ve had no word so far on the outcome. Egyptian officials have repeatedly signaled their desire to ramp up gas exports to the continent as a key part of ambitions to become a Mediterranean gas hub. Boosting exports would be good for us, good for the EU, and good for East Mediterranean countries. But with our LNG exports apparently maxed out for now, it’s a solution that will take longer than Europe — and Russia — might be willing to wait.

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