Russia’s failure to boost short-term supplies to ease Europe’s energy price shock shows why the EU needs to wean itself off foreign fossil fuels and scale up renewables, the bloc’s top energy official has said.
Kadri Simson, the European commissioner for energy, also defended the EU’s green deal plan to move to a net zero carbon economy by 2050, amid calls for a climate policy rethink from central European leaders, as she set out the EU’s response to the energy price spike after wholesale electricity prices increased by 200% over the last year.
The European Commission has been under pressure to launch an investigation into Russia’s Gazprom, which is accused of seeking to take advantage of high global prices. Calling for an EU inquiry, a group of MEPs last month suggested the Russian state monopoly could be guilty of “deliberate market manipulation” in order to pressure regulators to speed up approval of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea.
Vladimir Putin on Wednesday dismissed the idea that Russia was using energy as a weapon: “This is just politically motivated chatter, which has no basis whatsoever,” the Russian president told an energy conference in Moscow. He said Russia was meeting its contractual obligations and was ready to increase supply if asked.
Simson said the commission remained vigilant over any “manipulation and speculation and anti-competitive activity” on the European market, but did not level this charge at Russia, which supplies 41% of EU gas. “Our initial assessment indicated that Gazprom has been fulfilling its long-term contracts, while providing little or no additional supply. Ultimately, the solution is the same whether it is about prices, security of supply or climate. Scaling up local, renewable energy is the way forward,” she told reporters. “I would prefer to be in the position where we aren’t dependent on foreign fossil fuels.”
But a Polish government source rejected the commission’s analysis on Russia, accusing Gazprom of trying to pressure the EU into a swift decision on Nord Stream 2 and permitting it “relaxed” operational rules. The “commission should therefore verify Gazprom’s actions in 2021 in the context of potential market abuse”, the source said.
Construction of the pipeline was completed last month but it cannot start delivering gas until it clears regulatory hurdles in Germany and Brussels.
European households’ energy bills have jumped in response to a mix of economic, policy and meteorological factors. Surging global demand, largely driven by China’s post-pandemic economic rebound, has combined with gas reserves depleted across the continent by last year’s cold winter. Meanwhile the EU’s carbon price has hit record levels, but analysts say it only accounts for a small part of price increases.
According to commission analysis, countries that generate more of their energy from wind and solar power have been less affected by increases in gas prices.
“We are not facing an energy price surge because of our climate policy or because renewables are expensive,” Simson said. “We are facing it because the fossil fuel prices are spiking. We do not yet have the green affordable energy for everyone. We need to speed up the green transition, not slow it down.”
Politicians in Hungary and Poland have sought to link the EU’s emissions trading scheme – a key part of the bloc’s environmental policy – to the surge in gas prices. Yet independent analysis suggests energy price rises are largely driven by increasing global demand for gas.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Simson announced the EU executive would consider the widelytrailed joint purchase of emergency gas reserves – an idea pushed by Spain, one of the countries hit hardest by the energy price rise.
The proposal falls far short of immediate action, reflecting scepticism in Brussels that EU member states have the appetite for this common action. The commission will “explore the possible benefits of joint procurement of reserve stocks … to allow pooling forces and creating strategic reserves”, said a policy paper published on Wednesday. As with the EU joint procurement of coronavirus vaccines, participation would be voluntary.
EU leaders will pronounce their initial verdict on the idea at a summit next week, but some countries have already sounded a cautious note.
The paper is likely to disappoint member states looking for an immediate response. Rather than an action plan, it is mostly a list of suggestions EU governments could take under existing rules.
Governments are reminded, for example, that they could give grants to the poorest consumers for energy-saving measures; take action to prevent people being cut off for unpaid bills; cut energy taxes; and consider moving renewable energy levies off energy bills for a period.