Russia’s cheap energy comes back to haunt Germany
Berlin is facing up to the prospect that most of its natural gas and coal supplies could be cut off
For years, the US warned Germany about building up a dangerous energy dependence on Russia, the source of more than half of its fossil fuel imports. Now that the war in Ukraine has shocked Berlin into the same conclusion, the government is finding that changing course might be too late.
Europe’s largest economy is facing up to the prospect that the bulk of its natural gas and coal supplies could be choked off, ripping through its industrial base and sparking economic upheaval. Companies including utility Uniper and chemical giant BASF are particularly exposed. And with gas reserves low, the pain would quickly spread to manufacturers and households already buckling under ever-rising bills.
“If either the Europeans no longer want to buy the gas or Russia cuts them off, that would be a very significant shock,” David Folkerts-Landau, the chief economist at Deutsche Bank, said in a Bloomberg TV interview this week. “You will have a very serious recession.”
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government has said the country’s gas needs are covered until next winter. But Europe’s gas storage facilities are now less than a third full, well below the average for this time of the year. To compensate for lost Russian gas, Germany would need deliveries from the world’s entire 600-vessel fleet of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers, business lobby DIHK estimates.
For now, Moscow has given no indication that it may cut off supplies, while Germany opposes sanctions or political pressure that would prompt a full energy embargo. But already, Berlin is in crisis mode.
Highlighting the sense of urgency, the government has authorised a €1.5bn ad hoc payment to secure LNG. At current prices, that’s only about a week’s worth of gas, according to BloombergNEF estimates, and LNG is typically at least 10% more expensive than supplies piped from Russia. The government announced on Saturday that state-owned lender KfW would partner with Nederlandse Gasunie and RWE to build an LNG terminal in the northern port city of Brunsbuettel.
“I say this with great regret and without a smile on my face: Germany is dependent on Russian energy imports,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor and minister for the economy and climate policy, said this week.
In the event of a supply shutdown, Uniper is likely to be one of the first companies to feel the fallout. The Düsseldorf-based utility has more than half of its long-term gas contracts with Russia and faces a bleak future if those supplies are cut off. That would have a knock-on effect on consumers and factories dependent on its electricity.
The company is facing the crisis on shaky ground. Extreme price movements have forced it to borrow billions of euros to back up trading bets. Meanwhile, its investment in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia is probably lost after Germany put the gas link on hold.
“The situation at the Russian-Ukrainian border leaves us at Uniper profoundly unsettled,” CEO Klaus-Dieter Maubach said a day before President Vladimir Putin started the invasion.
German oil and gas producer Wintershall Dea also wrote down €1bn invested in the controversial $11bn project, which had long irked the US because of the Russian connection but was nevertheless nearing completion until the government halted certification.
The first Nord Stream pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine to connect Germany directly with Russian gas fields, was opened by former chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011, calling it a “remarkable achievement”.
Scholz announced plans to fast-track construction of the country’s first LNG terminals, but that will take years. In the short term, the government released a crisis plan, including building up coal reserves for power plants and forcing gas firms to keep minimum storage levels. Nearly a third of that capacity is controlled by Russia’s Gazprom in a further sign of Germany’s dependence.
The ultimate fix is a shift towards renewable power, which will also take time and money. Germany has already retreated from nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster a decade ago. Its final three reactors are due to shut this year.
Insurers Euler Hermes and Allianz estimate that it would require €170bn in investment a year for the EU to gain independence from Russian energy. Habeck, a former co-leader of the Green party, proposed legislation this week that would roughly triple the pace of adding wind and solar power.
“What was consciously built up in the last 10, 15 years — namely, making the dependence on Russian energy greater — can’t be completely changed in a few days or in three months,” Habeck said on Thursday after convening with business leaders to discuss the crisis. “We will and need to remain open for energy imports from Russia.”
The reason for concern is clear. Russia supplies more than half of Germany’s gas, half of its coal and roughly a third of its oil. BloombergNEF estimates that replacing Russian gas would require an additional 82 LNG tankers a month, more than the February output of Qatar, one of the world’s top producers.
Russia shutting down deliveries is not a far-fetched scenario, because gas provides the government with only a quarter of the revenue compared with oil, according to Stefan Ulrich, a BloombergNEF analyst.
“Industry production in Germany would be extremely affected in such a case,” Volker Treier, head of the foreign trade board of German industry lobby group DIHK, adding that compensating for the loss of Russian gas in the short term “borders on the impossible”.
A gas shortage could prompt BASF to halt some factories, dealing a blow to supplies of materials used in cars, fertilisers and medicines across Europe.
Some energy-intensive companies are starting to inquire about alternative fuels in the event of a gas cut-off, according to Wolfgang Hahn, owner of Energy Consulting, which advises hundreds of companies in Germany. “This is the biggest energy crisis people in Europe have faced since World War 2,” said Hahn. “The 1970s was just a price crisis. This is more serious than that.”
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