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"Europe’s Worst Energy Nightmare Is Becoming Reality"

Russian outages and record-high prices threaten a “winter of discontent.”

By Christina Lu, an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. .

The receiving station for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline near Lubmin, Germany, on Feb. 2. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As Russian gas cutoffs upend European energy security, the continent is struggling to cope with what experts say is one of its worst-ever energy crises—and it could still get much worse.

For months, European leaders have been haunted by the prospect of losing Russia’s natural gas supply, which accounts for some 40 percent of European imports and has been a crucial energy lifeline for the continent. That nightmare is now becoming a painful reality as Moscow slashes its flows in retaliation for Europe’s support for Ukraine, dramatically increasing energy prices and forcing many countries to resort to emergency plans, and as backup energy suppliers such as Norway and North Africa are failing to step up.

“This is the most extreme energy crisis that has ever occurred in Europe,” said Alex Munton, an expert on global gas markets at Rapidan Energy Group, a consultancy. “Europe [is] looking at the very real prospect of not having sufficient gas when it’s most needed, which is during the coldest part of the year.”

“Prices have shot through the roof,” added Munton, who noted that European natural gas prices—nearly $50 per MMBTu—have eclipsed U.S. price rises by nearly tenfold. “That is an extraordinarily high price to be paying for natural gas, and really there is no immediate way out from here.” Many officials and energy experts worry that the crisis will only deepen after Nord Stream 1, the largest gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, is taken down for scheduled maintenance this week. Although the pipeline is supposed to be under repair for only 10 days, the Kremlin’s history of energy blackmail and weaponization has stoked fears that Moscow won’t turn it back on—leaving heavily reliant European countries in the lurch. (Russia’s second pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, was killed in February as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to invade Ukraine, leaving Nord Stream 1 as the biggest direct gas link between Russia and Europe’s biggest economy.)

“Everything is possible. Everything can happen,” German economy minister Robert Habeck told Deutschlandfunk on Saturday. “It could be that the gas flows again, maybe more than before. It can also be the case that nothing comes.”

That would spell trouble for the upcoming winter, when demand for energy surges and having sufficient natural gas is necessary for heating. European countries typically rely on the summer months to refill their gas storage facilities. And at a time of war, when the continent’s future gas supply is uncertain, having that energy cushion is especially crucial.

If Russia’s prolonged disruptions continue, experts warn of a difficult winter: one of potential rationing, industrial shutdowns, and even massive economic dislocation. British officials, who just a few months ago warned of soaring power bills for consumers, are now warning of even worse.

Europe could face a “winter of discontent,” said Helima Croft, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets. “Rationing, industrial shut-ins—all of that is looming.”

Unrest has already been brewing, with strikes erupting across the continent as households struggle under the pressures of spiraling costs of living and inflationary pressures. Some of this discontent has also had knock-on effects in the energy market. In Norway, the European Union’s biggest supplier of natural gas after Russia, mass strikes in the oil and gas industries last week forced companies to shutter production, sending further shockwaves throughout Europe.


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