Keys | Bulgaria, the weakest link after the cut of Russian gas | International
Russia changes screen in its relationship with the European Union, by far its largest trading partner. The Government of Vladimir Putin closed the natural gas tap to Poland and Bulgaria, two of the countries most dependent on Russian fuel, early this Wednesday morning, in which it is the first supply cut to a country of the bloc since that the war started. That decision has triggered tension in the EU and in the gas markets, which fear that it is just the first move of many more.
Why is Moscow cutting off gas now?
The Kremlin alleges that the problem lies in the refusal of both countries to pay for gas in rubles, as Russia has been demanding for a month in order to stabilize its currency, which has already recovered pre-crisis levels. However, there are compelling reasons to think that the measure is, rather, a form of challenge to the unity of action of the EU, which until now has been one in this field.
The region most susceptible to new cuts is, by far, Eastern Europe, where dependency is greatest. In the westernmost countries of the continent, and especially in Spain, Russian gas represents a minimal fraction of what is consumed: between January and March it did not even reach 7% of the total, according to the latest data from the gas system manager, Enagás. The Iberian Peninsula also has the largest network of regasification plants on the continent, which gives it an additional dose of security.
The EU, which has branded Moscow’s action as “unacceptable blackmail”, stands firm: Member States must not be tempted to pay for gas in rubles to get rid of the problem. Despite the fact that Gazprom has aired, through Bloomberg, that four unidentified countries of the Union had given their arm to twist, there is no official confirmation that this information is accurate.
Who has to lose?
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In the short term, recipient countries. For Russia, which has earned 63,000 million euros from gas, oil and coal sold abroad since the start of the war, exports of fossil fuels to Poland and Bulgaria are residual on the total. From the point of view of Warsaw and Sofia, on the other hand, Russian gas is essential to meet the needs of their homes and businesses.
There is no good time to stop receiving Russian gas, but now – with the cold season already over – it is the least dangerous phase of the year. Spring, however, is key to filling the tanks for the next winter, which seems especially tense even if the war ends soon.
How much do Poland and Bulgaria depend on Russian gas?
55% of the natural gas consumed by Poland comes from the Eurasian country, according to the latest data from the European Commission. Its second primary source of gas is Qatar, with a total share that does not reach 14% of the total. The Bulgarian case is even more serious: Russia covers more than three quarters of its demand.
What alternatives do they have?
The first and most immediate is to redouble solidarity between European countries: that Germany, the Czech Republic or Slovakia —in the Polish case— and Romania and Greece —in the Bulgarian case— supply them with emergency gas to pass this first drink. This urgent redirection of flows is already happening: “Both Poland and Bulgaria are now receiving gas from their EU neighbors,” the president of the Community Executive, Ursula von der Leyen, confirmed on Wednesday. Paradoxically, the primary origin of most of that fuel is also Russia. There is also the circumstance that a not lesser fraction arrives through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, which crosses Poland on its way to Germany.
The second option consists of increasing imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG, which is transported by ship) from other suppliers, such as Norway, Algeria, Qatar, Australia or the United States. But the high prices, the tension in the global market —there are more demand than supply—and, above all, the fragility of the regasification infrastructures—the transfer is done with the fuel in a frozen state and then it has to be returned to a gaseous state in plants specially prepared for it—emerge as the main obstacles to bring it to reality.
According to the latest count by Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE), Poland only has one such plant, which will be expanded throughout this year. The second, already planned, will not come into operation until 2025. Bulgaria, for its part, does not have any such facility: it will have to wait until next year before it can use the floating plant it will share with Greece and which is still under construction.
How long can they last?
It all depends on two factors: how much gas their community neighbors can send them and the rate at which they use up the fuel they have stored. And in both cases, Poland is in a noticeably more comfortable position: its interconnections with the rest of the continent are much more robust and its gas reserves are at 76%, the second highest level in the EU, behind only Portugal. In Bulgaria, on the other hand, storage points are only at 17% of their capacity, the second lowest level in the bloc after Belgium, according to GIE data.
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