Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 12 May 2024

 The EU should call time on Russian LNG imports

With one more careful push, the bloc could wean itself off Moscow’s gas entirely

13 May 2024

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the EU has had remarkable success in slashing its reliance on natural gas piped in from Russia. Partly this has been by switching sources and reducing demand, and partly by increasing imports of liquefied natural gas. Some of the latter, however, still come from Russia, whose LNG imports to the EU have actually increased; Moscow made an estimated €8.2bn from such sales last year — vital funding for its war. The bloc is now proposing limited restrictions on Russia’s liquefied gas, the first time it has targeted Moscow’s gas trade with sanctions. It should go further, and ban Russian LNG after a cut-off date.

Such a radical redrawing of EU energy supplies seemed barely imaginable in 2022. But co-ordinated policy measures, surging prices, and Russian supply interruptions followed by explosions that blew up the subsea Nord Stream pipelines led to huge shifts. The proportion of EU gas imports accounted for by Russia dropped from 46 per cent in 2021 to 16 per cent last year. LNG from suppliers including the US and Qatar doubled its share of the bloc’s gas imports — making the EU the world’s largest LNG importer ahead of China and Japan. Helped by mild winters, gas prices have dropped back towards pre-crisis levels.

But Russian LNG exports to the EU reached about 20bn cubic metres in both of the past two years, up more than a third from 14.6bcm in 2021. Some of that is trans-shipped via EU ports to China, India and Turkey. But the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a think-tank, says a little under 16bcm went to EU buyers including France, Spain and Belgium, which send some of it on to Germany, Italy and others.

Paris, the biggest buyer, says it is acting as a hub for imports the EU cannot yet do without, and has legally binding long-term purchase agreements with Russia. Critics suggest it is being leaned on by TotalEnergies, which was long a partner in Russian LNG projects.

The EU is now proposing to ban member states from trans-shipping Russian LNG to third countries. That will push up Moscow’s costs, forcing it to take much longer routes. The bloc also plans to bar EU involvement in new Russian LNG projects, crimping the Kremlin’s future revenues. Neither move, however, would much dent Moscow’s current earnings from EU LNG sales.

EU members ought instead to move towards a total ban on Russian LNG — as Finland, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states are reportedly pushing for. They do need to tread carefully. Industry and consumers are only now recovering from the price spikes of 2022; another shock would do great damage. And the EU still imported about 13.6bcm of Russian gas last year through a pipeline across Ukraine — in a contract due to expire at the end of this year. The EU’s energy regulator has cautioned that Russian LNG imports should only be reduced “in gradual steps”.

Yet large volumes of new LNG production are due on stream in 2025 and beyond from Qatar, the US and others. The EU is continuing to increase its regasification capacity to accommodate LNG imports. There is further scope to reconfigure Europe’s gas network to ensure countries that used to rely on Russia have alternative supply routes.

The EU has a target of ending all Russian fossil fuel imports by 2027, but every month they continue helps Moscow’s war effort. Though it will face opposition from the likes of Hungary, the bloc should set an earlier deadline to ban Russian LNG. This would incentivise swifter efforts to adapt, and oblige customers to declare force majeure on supply contracts with Moscow. Europe has made great strides towards weaning itself off Russia’s gas. With a final, concerted push, it could finish the job.

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