Putin’s natural gas “weapon” more hype than hazard

Robert Samuelson 

WASHINGTON – The continuing Ukrainian crisis has cast a specter over Europe: a natural gas cutoff. Russia supplies 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas. In any tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions, this seems the ultimate weapon, dwarfing almost anything Europe and the United States could deploy. It evokes images of shivering people and shuttered factories. Knowing this, the West will limit sanctions for fear of provoking Russia. Game over. Vladimir Putin wins again. Maybe not. On closer inspection, Russia’s doomsday weapon involves much bluff. If used, it would probably do less damage than imagined, while also imposing long-term costs on Russia. In a study, the consultancy IHS CERA doubted that “any (gas) disruption to Europe is likely.” This skepticism is well-founded. Russia may squeeze Ukraine by raising natural gas prices, but the scarier notion that Europe is held hostage by its need for Russian gas is a huge exaggeration.

Start with natural gas’ place in Europe’s overall energy mix. The 30 percent Russian share of gas use sounds impressive, but natural gas represented only 22 percent of Europe’s total energy consumption in 2013, says Matthew Sagers of IHS CERA. Do the arithmetic: 30 percent of 22 percent is a little less than 7 percent. That’s the share of Russian natural gas in Europe’s total energy consumption. It isn’t enough to shut down Europe’s economy or impose universal suffering, even if none of it could be replaced. But some of it could, almost certainly, be replaced. In 2013, Europe used 421 billion cubic meters (BCM) of natural gas; about one-fifth of this, or 101 BCM, went for electricity generation, says Sagers. “There’s quite a bit of flexibility in the system,” he argues. Facing a cutoff, power companies could “switch from a plant that’s fired with gas to an existing one that’s fired by coal.” This would save scarce gas supplies for homes and factories, about 70 percent of consumption. Europe’s other big buffer against a shutoff is storage: gas that has already arrived and been pumped into underground tanks. Some could be released to ease shortages. Pipelines have been re-engineered to permit the reversal of flows to send gas to where it’s most needed. Since 2005, storage has increased about one-fifth to 94 BCM, and another 12 BCM is scheduled to come online in the next two years, according to Alun Davies of IHS CERA. And Europe’s present storage is relatively high. “An unusually mild winter in 2013 … contributed to higher levels of natural gas storage in Europe (natural gas storage levels were 46 percent full as of March 13, compared to 23 percent full in the United States),” reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Some increase in Europe’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, which dropped almost 50 percent from 2011 to 2013, could also replenish storage, though Europeans would probably have to pay higher prices to attract added LNG supplies. Spot market LNG prices in Asia, where demand is strong, are as much as two-thirds higher than in Europe, says Sagers. None of this means that a shutoff wouldn’t impose hardship. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and some Balkan nations, including Bulgaria, are totally dependent on Russia for gas. They could not be easily resupplied by alternate routes, says IHS CERA. France, Germany and other major countries would be much less affected.

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But Russia would also face sizable costs if it ended all gas exports or even those going through Ukraine, about half its supply to Europe. The foreign exchange that Russia earns from gas exports, about one-eighth of its total exports, would take a significant hit. And Europe would doubtlessly accelerate efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. It’s said that American LNG exports could rescue Europe. This is unrealistic; LNG plants (seven have been approved for export) cost billions and take years to complete. When done, much of the LNG may go to Asia, though Europe would benefit from increased overall supplies. The message here is simpler: The dangers of a cutoff should not intimidate the West. They’re overrated.

Robert Samuelson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.