Poland announced steps Wednesday to end all Russian oil imports by year’s end, while Germany issued a warning about natural gas levels and called on people to conserve, new signs of how Russia’s war in Ukraine has escalated tensions about securing energy supplies to power Europe.
Poland, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, has taken the lead in the European Union on swiftly cutting off Russian fossil fuels. The 27-nation bloc has declined to sanction energy because it depends on Moscow for the fuel needed for cars, electricity, heating and industry, but it has announced proposals to wean itself off those supplies.
“We are presenting the most radical plan in Europe for departing from Russian oil by the end of this year,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at a news conference.
It comes a day after Poland said it was banning Russian coal imports, expected by May. Morawiecki says Poland will take steps to become “independent” of Russian supplies and is calling on other European Union countries to “walk away” as well. He argues that money paid for Russia’s oil and gas is fueling its war machine.
While some in Europe are calling for an immediate boycott of all Russian oil and natural gas, the EU plans to reduce Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year and eliminate them before 2030. In the meantime, rattled energy markets have pushed up already high oil and natural gas prices for Europeans and others worldwide.
The EU is turning to investments in renewable energy as a long-term fix but also is scrambling to shore up alternative sources of fossil fuels, including a new agreement with the U.S. to receive more liquefied natural gas, or LNG, that arrives by ship.
Poland is expanding an LNG terminal to receive deliveries from Qatar, the U.S., Norway and other exporters. A new Baltic pipeline bringing gas from Norway is expected to open by the end of the year. It also has been reducing dependence on Russian oil through contracts with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Norway and is considering imports from Kazakhstan.
Germany, the EU’s biggest economy and one of the most reliant on Russia’s natural gas, has signed deals with several suppliers of LNG, which is shipped to neighboring European countries and then pumped in. Officials say they aim to end the use of Russian oil and coal this year and natural gas by mid-2024.
It has not stopped the fears about the coming months. Germany issued an early warning over gas supplies and called on companies and households to conserve amid concerns that Russia could cut off gas deliveries unless it is paid in rubles.
Western nations have rejected that demand, arguing it would undermine sanctions over the war. France also called Wednesday for “those who can” to conserve energy, including electricity and gas, focusing especially on businesses and public facilities.
“There have been several comments from the Russian side that if this (payments in rubles) doesn’t happen, then the supplies will be stopped,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters in Berlin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said switching payments for Russian gas to rubles is going to be a “drawn-out process.” He noted there is always a gap between gas supplies and payments and that the government will release details of the plan soon.
Habeck said those rules were expected Thursday.
He called the early warning precautionary as Russia was still fulfilling its contracts so far. It is the first of three levels and entails establishing a crisis team to step up monitoring of the gas supply, Habeck said.
Germany’s gas storages are filled to about 25% capacity.
“The question how long the gas will last basically depends on several factors (such as) consumption and weather,” he said. “If there’s a lot of heating, then the storage facilities will be emptied.”
He added that Germany is prepared for a sudden stop in Russian gas supplies but warned of “considerable impacts” and urged consumers to help prevent a shortage by reducing their use.
“We are in a situation where, I have to say this clearly, every kilowatt-hour of energy saved helps,” Habeck said.
The second warning level would require companies in the gas industry to take necessary measures to regulate supply. The third means full state intervention to ensure that those who most need gas — such as hospitals and private households — receive it, Habeck said.
“We’re not there and we don’t want to go there,” he added.
Italy issued a pre-alert of the risks to its natural gas supply days after the war broke out, given its heavy reliance on Russia. Energy transition minister Roberto Cingolani said the warning aimed to inform users of the “uncertainties linked to the conflict,” while confirming supplies remained adequate to cover demand. It has not asked people to conserve.
France’s gas storage facilities are “well filled,” according to the head of its Regulatory Energy Commission, but still asked for some efforts to save energy.
“If we don’t do that, there is a risk next winter for consumption demand to be superior to our ability to meet that demand,” Jean-Francois Carenco told the BFM news broadcaster.
France gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants. But during peak demand at winter time, the country needs to import electricity, some of which is produced by gas-powered plants.