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ENERGY

‘There’s not enough gas in the world’: Can Europe keep the heating on this winter?

Without Russian supplies there is simply not enough gas in the world, analysts say. The key to Europe getting through the winter will be the weather.

'There's not enough gas in the world': Can Europe keep the heating on this winter?
Will Europe have enough gas to get through a cold winter? (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)

Europe is likely to scrape through this winter without cutting off gas customers despite reduced Russian supplies, but even adjusting to colder homes and paying more may not be enough in coming years, analysts say.

“I like a hot house, I have to admit… I really used a lot of gas,” said Sofie de Rous, who until this year kept her home on the Belgian coast at a toasty 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit).

But like millions of other Europeans, the 41-year-old employee at an architectural firm has had to turn down the thermostat after energy prices surged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Russia’s progressive reduction of gas supplies to Europe via pipeline triggered a bidding war for liquefied natural gas (LNG), sending prices sharply higher.

If certain countries like France and Spain froze prices for consumers, others like Belgium let suppliers more or less pass along the higher costs.

“I was a little panicked in the beginning,” said de Rous, who saw the gas bill to heat her 90-square-metre (970-square-foot) house in Oostduinkerke jump from 120 euros ($126) per month to 330 euros.

She has lowered her thermostat to 18 degrees and is looking into installing double-pane windows and a solar panel.

Like de Rous, the lack of concern about energy consumption of a whole generation of Europeans ended abruptly in 2022, and everyone is mindful of where their thermostat is set.

If previously natural gas was cheap and plentiful, it is now scarce and expensive.

The European wholesale reference price used to fluctuate little, hovering around €20 per megawatt hour. This year, it shot as high as €300 before dropping back to around €100.

“It’s the most chaotic time I’ve witnessed in all of those years,” Graham Freedman, a European gas analyst at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie, told AFP.

Big drops in consumption

Sky-high energy prices have caused numerous factories, particularly in Germany’s chemicals sector which was highly dependent upon cheap Russian gas, to halt operations.

But European nations were able to fill their gas reservoirs and no one has been cut off yet.

“Until February, the very idea of Europe without Russian energy was seen as impossible,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels.

“What was impossible became possible.”

A warm autumn that allowed many consumers to put off turning on their heating also helped put Europe in a better position for the winter.

But Europeans have also made dramatic cuts, with the EU using 20 percent less gas between August and November compared with the average gas consumption for the same months in 2017-2021, according to Eurostat.

In Germany, where half the households use gas for heat, data shows consumption down by 20 to 35 percent depending on the week.

“That’s much more than anyone expected,” said Lion Hirth, a professor of energy policy at the Hertie School in Berlin.

“And that’s completely contradictory to the talk that we’ve been hearing from doomsday talkers saying people just don’t respond.”

Energy bills are likely to remain high, and experts say a cap on gas prices agreed by the EU in December will only have a limited impact on bringing them down.

In the space of several months Russia has lost its top gas customer, Europe, with purchases passing from 191 billion cubic metres in 2019 to 90 billion this year.

Wood Mackenzie forecasts deliveries will fall to 38 billion cubic metres next year.

The EU has been able to import large quantities of LNG, but only by outbidding South Asian nations like Pakistan and India.

This has pushed these nations to increase their dependence on coal — negatively impacting global efforts to curb climate change.

In 2023?

Europe’s ability to import LNG has been limited by a lack of infrastructure. Port terminals capable of transforming the liquid in tankers back into gas and reinjecting it into pipelines are needed.

The continent’s top economy, Germany, scrambled to inaugurate its first facility in December, while plans for 26 new terminals have been announced across Europe, according to Global Energy Monitor.

And while the construction of more LNG terminals is underway, in 2023, unlike at the beginning of this year, Europe will mostly have to do without Russian gas to fill its reservoirs.

This could set up an even fiercer bidding war between European and Asian nations for supplies.

An EU gas price cap of 180 euros per megawatt hour that is scheduled to go into effect in February will likely have little impact in this case as it will not go into force if LNG prices are also high.

“The key factor is most certainly going to be: what is the weather going to be like this winter,” said Laura Page, a gas analyst at commodity data firm Kpler.

“If we have a cold winter in Asia, and we have a cold winter in Europe… this fight will intensify.”

The problem is that LNG supplies are limited.

“There isn’t enough gas in the world at the moment to actually cope with that loss of supply from Russia,” said Wood Mackenzie’s Freedman.

New LNG projects to boost supply won’t be able to come online before 2025, meaning Europeans will have to get used to living with homes heated to just 18 degrees.

Member comments

  1. What a manipulative article and a click bait.
    “ Without Russian supplies there is simply not enough gas in the world, analysts say.”
    What analysis? Who performed it and where’s the link to the original data?

  2. This is a highly misleading article. There is plenty of gas in the world. It’s just not conveniently available for Europeans on short notice.

    Western Canada has over something like 150 years of current reserves without looking for more. If they drilled they would almost certainly find more. This is in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. They also have loads of hydro power in BC so they can export the gas if they want to. Venezuela has lots of gas. So does Saudi Arabia. And if course the US of A has loads of gas.

    It’s just a case of getting all this to Europe. Pay up and I’m sure they will gladly start shipping it.

    Or perhaps some should consider moving to Canada for the energy security, cheap gas, and lower costs of heating and electricity.

    We need a better discussion on this important topic than this article offers.

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For members

SPAIN EXPLAINED

Why does Spain have no nuclear weapons?

Despite a top secret project to build them during the dictatorship, Spaniards have never been keen on the idea of nuclear weapons, especially since the US accidentally dropped four nuclear bombs on Almería.

Why does Spain have no nuclear weapons?

Spain isn’t part of the reduced group of nations that have nuclear weapons, which includes European neighbours the UK and France.

It has never tested nuclear weapons, does not manufacture them, nor has it bought them from nuclear allies who make them.

Spain is still a NATO member and doesn’t shy away from involving itself in foreign policy debates, often taking positions against the mainstream.

But it has still never joined the nuclear club nor have Spaniards ever really wanted to, even though former dictator Francisco Franco had different ideas (more on that below).

In fact, Spaniards seem to have an indifferent if not abnormally negative view of nukes, largely stemming from an accident by an American air force on Spanish soil in the 1960s.

READ ALSO: How important is nuclear power to Spain?

A 2018 study on state attitudes towards nuclear weapons concluded that Spain had “little to no interest in nuclear weapons.” Yet Spain still benefits from NATO’s so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ defence and has nearby neighbours, including France and the United Kingdom, that are nuclear powers. It is also home to several American military bases.

In that sense, Spain balances a somewhat unique position of being pro-nuclear for other countries and as a broader defence deterrence at the global level, but not on Spanish territory because it knows that would not sit well with Spaniards.

But why is this? Why doesn’t Spain have nuclear weapons?

Anti-nuclear sentiment among Spaniards

According to an article for Institut Montaigne by Clara Portela, Professor of Political Science at the University of Valencia, the Spanish people are “sensitised on nuclear weapons, if not negatively disposed towards them.”

Much of it comes down to history and, in particular, an accident involving nuclear weapons on Spanish soil. As part of post-war defence and security agreements Spain made with the U.S, American nuclear weapons were kept on Spanish soil.

Spaniards weren’t keen on the idea. Portela notes that “their presence at the Torrejón base near Madrid was a controversial issue” among the public, but it was an accident in 1966 that really soured Spaniards to nuclear weapons after an American aircraft carrying a hydrogen bomb crashed and dropped the device in the waters near the town of Palomares off the coast of Almería.

READ ALSO: Ten of the best documentaries about Spain

The incident caused “one of the bombs to fall to the seabed and leak radioactivity” into the surrounding area, Portela states, something that would have no doubt hardened many Spaniard’s perceptions towards nuclear weapons, especially as the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still in living memory for many.

A NATO-nuclear referendum

This scepticism towards nuclear arms was solidified twenty years later in a referendum on NATO membership. Though the government of the day campaigned for continued membership of the military alliance, it made it conditional on Spain also continuing as a non-nuclear power. A clause in the referendum consultation outlined this condition: “The prohibition to install, store or introduce nuclear weapons on Spanish soil will be maintained.”

Spaniards backed their continued, non-nuclear NATO membership by 13 percent.

A year later, in 1987, Spain formally signed the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), further cementing its non-nuclear stance.

And that was it — with this and the result of the referendum, Portela suggests that “the issue of nuclear weapons was all but archived. It hardly re-surfaced in public debates for decades.”

An atomic bomb of the type nicknamed “Little Boy” that was dropped by a US Army Air Force B-29 bomber in 1945 over Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by LOS ALAMOS SCIENTIFIC LABORATORY / AFP)

The nuclear dictator?

Despite the Spanish public’s distrust of nuclear weapons, there was one Spaniard in particular who was quite keen on the idea: Franco.

In what may be one of the most terrifying historical ‘what ifs’ ever, the fascist dictator wanted to equip Spain with a nuclear arsenal, started a project to do so, and came very close to achieving it.

The ‘Islero Project’, as it was known, was top secret and lasted for several decades of scientific research until it was finally abandoned in the 1980s after his death.

Firstly, a brief consideration of the geopolitics of the time is worthwhile here, and it concerns the Americans again. When the Second World War ended in 1945, Spain immediately became isolated on the international stage owing to its support for Nazi Germany and fascist Spain. It was excluded from the UN and shunned as a real player in international relations.

As the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation grew throughout the 1950s, Franco’s fierce anti-communism combined with the strategic geographical positioning of Spain led the U.S. to form closer ties with the dictatorship, promising financial aid and image rehabilitation in return for allowing American military bases in Spain.

READ ALSO: Where are the US’s military bases in Spain and why are they there?

The Junta de Energía Nuclear was created in 1951, undertaking research and atomic energy development more broadly, and it sent promising researchers to study in the U.S. When they returned, the Islero project continued in secret.

Rather bizarrely, it was the accident at Palomares years later that actually gave the scientists the key to designing an atomic bomb. Unconvinced by the American’s explanations for the debacle, the Spaniards working on plans discovered the Ulam-Teller method, which was fundamental to the development of the thermonuclear bomb or H-bomb.

However, the project was then frozen by Franco himself because he feared the United States would discover that Spain was trying to develop its own atomic bomb and impose economic sanctions.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish scientists secretly restarted the project, but in 1982 the new Socialist government discovered the plans and disbanded the project. By 1987 the González government announced Spain’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT and the issue has rarely even come up as an issue since then.

And despite that, Spain is a NATO member, regularly attends the G20, and often plays a leading role on the global stage. Certain elements of the dictatorship had eyes on building a nuclear arsenal, but it never happened. Franco ultimately worried about the economic repercussions of being discovered, and Spaniards were themselves sceptical about the idea based on the experience in Palomares.

In terms of nuclear weapons, Spain is what Portela describes as a ‘de-proliferation’ state – in other words, a country that aspired to have nuclear bombs but reversed it.

It doesn’t look like changing anytime soon either. A survey in 2021 showed that Spain had the highest level of support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with a massive 89 percent majority.

READ ALSO: Why is Spain not in the G20 (but is always invited)?

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