Connect to share and comment

Thoughts of winter cold distract EU leaders

European Union rushes to put crisis-preparedness plans in place, fearing another gas shutdown.

A worker welds a gas pipe line in the mountains near the settlement of Buron, 52.8 miles from the regional main city of Vladikavkaz in southern Russia, June 17, 2009. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — One could say it’s taken years to get to this point, but really it was three weeks.

Three weeks in the dead of winter during which 18 of the 27 European Union member states saw their gas supplies reduced — or completely cut off — because of a commercial dispute between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz, the main suppliers to the EU.

While this had happened before on a smaller scale for a shorter time, the massive blow to European economies, trust and patience in January meant the EU finally got serious about establishing alternative energy suppliers (such as the Nabucco pipeline project) and protecting itself in case of another shutdown.

Clearly, EU leaders are concerned their gas could be shut off again, despite the January assurances from the Russian and Ukrainian governments that it wouldn’t happen. Ukraine is having trouble paying its summer bills to Russia and Moscow is again threatening to cut off supplies. At a head-of-state summit in June, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned that “there is indeed the risk of another major crisis in weeks, not months.”

A quarter of the EU’s overall energy supply is provided by natural gas. Some member states depend entirely on imports and Russia is by far the largest single supplier, even the sole supplier in some of the eastern EU countries.

That’s why now, when most of Europe is basking in holiday sun, the European Commission is panicking about winter and has rushed to present new crisis-preparedness measures months earlier than they were expected.

Confirming that an energy disruption is “a probability,” Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs on Thursday announced steps he wants governments to take to prevent another freeze-out. Even while acknowledging the elephant standing next to him on the podium, Piebalgs said the new measures were not about Russia, but rather “establishing a gas market that is safe from any type of interruption of supply.”

Under the proposal, which still needs the approval of heads of state and the European Parliament, all member states would need to be in a state of continual readiness for a crisis. Within a year, each must assign a competent authority to prepare a “preventive action plan” outlining specific risks to national gas supplies and what measures could be taken to reduce the risks, as well as what procedures would be followed in the event of a disruption.

By 2014, Piebalgs said, governments would have to prove they had taken enough steps and sufficiently diversified to prove they could handle a theoretical 60-day period with no gas in the middle of winter, called the “N minus one” requirement.

Although Piebalgs encouraged states to increase their stores of natural gas, he said the Commission decided after lengthy discussion not to mandate it, as many countries are doing so anyway. Nor will states be required to share their gas in a crisis, but the new coordination mechanisms envision making voluntary cooperation easier.

The Commission would assume a much more active oversight role, including the right to declare an EU-wide emergency if supply is reduced by more than 10 percent, and ensuring that one country’s measures don’t harm a neighbor. “The regulations would empower the Commission with the role of coordinating internal solidarity mechanisms and make sure that Europe speaks with one voice with third countries in case of a community emergency,” Piebalgs explained.

This hands-on management would differ markedly from the Commission’s studiously aloof position in the early days of the January crisis, when spokespeople repeatedly dismissed the situation as a bilateral dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

The Commission proposals come just three days after a landmark accord, seven years in the making, was signed between four EU countries — Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania — and Turkey. The Nabucco pipeline would transport gas through the Balkan states to an Austrian hub from the Caspian region and the Middle East, bypassing the troublesome Russian-Ukrainian route.