Energy ministers discuss EU request to scale back gas over fears of Russian cuts

Malta is expected to take a lukewarm position over a EU proposal to start cutting back on gas consumption and save for the coming winter, fearing an imminent Russian cut in supplies

EC vice-president Frans Timmermans and energy minister Miriam Dalli
EC vice-president Frans Timmermans and energy minister Miriam Dalli

Energy ministers will meet in Brussels today to discuss a European Commission proposal to scale back national gas consumption by 15%, in a bid to save up reserves for the coming winter.

The proposal comes in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Brussels accusing Russia of deliberating disrupting gas supply.

But Malta is expected to be lukewarm, to say the least, about the proposal, together with other Mediterranean nations like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

Spanish environment minister Teresa Ribera, speaking today with the press, said it would not make sense “for an island that cannot send gas to Central Europe” to have saving measures just for the sake of solidarity. “Saving gas without a real capacity to send to other countries does not help the solidarity measures… a combination of solidarity and flexibility would make sense. You can combine savings but also ensure a way that different infrastructures can work to harmonise Euorpean needs.”

Energy commissioner Kadri Simson told journalists at the opening of the Council meeting that Europe had to be ready for “supply cuts from Russia at any moment”.

“We have to act right now, take care of preparedness, together, and by doing so, reduce our demand pre-emptively, allowing us to continue filling our storage, and reduce the gap between supply and demand.”

Simson acknowledged that member states do have their own different circumstances, but sounded an optimistic note by saying she was expecting to find a political agreement at the end of the day.

Energy minister Miriam Dalli could be expected to echo misgivings by Prime Minister Robert Abela, who last week warned that the European citizens were not always being safeguarded in top-level EU discussions about the fallout of the Ukraine war.

He was referring to the effect of Russian sanctions and how these also had an impact on European consumers.

“This is a surreal situation, which makes it even more crucial for the government to continue intervening aggressively to help people,” Abela said of the EC’s plans to create an emergency mechanism to force a reduction of gas consumption.

Malta runs a gas plant which is partly owned by SOCAR Trading, the energy trading arm of Azerbaijan, which sources LNG purchases from its offices in Geneva, but not necessarily Azeri gas. “Had we not taken the wise and strategic decision to invest in our energy infrastructure post-2013, the consequences would have been catastrophic.”

Abela has also remarked that Russian sanctions also have continued effects on European people, and that he felt leaders should be prioritising peace rather than escalating the conflict.

“Sometimes I feel doubt and I ask myself whether other priorities are being prioritised over the needs of citizens. Sometimes I suspect that people’s priorities are being placed secondary. I will keep on passing the message that people’s needs must come first… Unfortunately, pressures are continuously escalating and are expected to escalate further in the coming weeks; our duty as leaders is to prioritise peace.”

Save gas for winter proposal

The European Commission says that Russian gas supplies are being disrupted as a deliberate attempt to use energy as a political weapon.

Russia has been for many years the main gas supplier of the EU. Last year, the EU relied on Russia for more than 40% of its gas supplies. But the supply of gas has continuously decreased since the start of the war. The pipeline flows of gas from Russia are less than 30% of the average of the previous years.

The supply shock has significant impacts on the price of gas, on the price of electricity, on inflation, on the overall EU financial and macroeconomic stability, and on all citizens.

“There is no reason to believe this deterioration of gas supply will stop. The EU is today facing the realistic prospect of a full and protracted disruption of gas from Russia at any moment. It must be prepared for it and take pre-emptive actions to mitigate the impacts of possible major supply disruptions,” the Commission proposal to member states says.

The EC says further reductions of gas demand are crucial to avoid far-reaching negative consequences for citizens and the EU economy.

The proposed Regulation creates an improved coordination framework for national gas demand reduction measures. It also introduces a possibility for the Commission to declare a new Union crisis level, namely a ‘Union alert’, triggering a compulsory Union-wide demand reduction obligation and aiming to safeguard security of gas supply.

“The commitment of all Member States to reduce gas demand by measures of their own choice in case of a further deterioration of the supply situation leading to a Union alert is key to prevent the significant economic harm stemming from further supply disruptions,” Brussels said.