EnergyWatch

Professor: Tense gas crisis at risk at flaring up again next winter

If geopolitical tensions don't quiet down in time, runaway European natural gas prices could return this coming winter, says professor of energy planning. The EU Commission is now assessing all signs of market manipulation, with in investigative efforts particularly intense in one area.

(ILLUSTRATION) | Photo: DENIS SINYAKOV/REUTERS / X02249

BRUSSELS

The EU's soaring energy prices have many roots: poor wind conditions in 2021, Danish gas field Tyra closed for reestablishment, and a range of other issues. According to Aalborg University Professor of Energy Planning Brian Vad Mathiesen, one factor is especially potent.

"There are several elements to this, but basically the crisis results from incomplete refilling of gas inventories, less volume delivered from Russia, and if we fail to solve the geopolitical tensions we're seeing right now, we could end up seeing the same thing next winter," Mathiesen tells EnergyWatch.

Generally speaking, the professor forecasts currently extreme price levels to fall this spring. Even so, he's hesitant to dismiss the crisis.

"If geopolitical tensions with Russia in connection with, for instance, Ukraine and Nord Stream 2 continue, the EU's energy supply will end up paying the price because this is one of the ways Russian can pressure Europe," Mathiesen says.

The same concern is common in Brussels, where the EU is intensifying its investigations into market manipulation of the natural gas trade.

European policymakers are sharply focused on Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom.

Crisis in the living room

The seriousness of rising electricity prices is also taking up an increasingly central spot in the European agenda. The question of energy poverty – literally entailing people choosing between food on the table or heat in the living room – and general worry about heating costs have become more pressing concerns both among EU residents and member states.

In Brussels, the issue has certainly not flown under the radar, with the Commission last year having sent out a toolbox of sorts for approving things like expediting issuances of certifications for green energy projects as well as offering support for ratepayers' power bills as possible instruments to mitigate the crisis.

Moreover, the EU regulator initiated a probe of potential manipulation of the European gas market – including a long row of allegations against Gazprom.

Polish focus

Mathiesen is not alone in attributing special status to Russia for its role in the current energy crisis.

Autumn last year, the EU Parliament also intensified scrutiny toward Gazprom, with the conservative ECR group having posed an official question to the Commission in the fall about the truth on whether the Russian company intentionally undersupplied gas stockpiles in Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and the Netherlands

At the same time, the ECR group demanded answers about whether the Commission would investigate Gazprom's "potential abuse of its monopoly in the European gas market".

The EU Commission generally doesn't comment on probes into individual companies. However, a Commission spokesperson now tells EnergyWatch about new details of the ongoing investigation.

When directly asked about Gazprom, the Commission today emphasizes that "all allegations of possible competition-distorting behavior" among companies that currently "produce or supply" natural gas for Europe will be investigated.

Here, the regulator started to compile information last year from various member states concerning the gas situation.

"Within this collection of facts, the Commission is in contact with national anti-trust authorities – especially the Polish competition authority, UOKIK," the spokesperson says.

Professor Mathiesen declines to speculate on whether the right place to explore is in Poland or specific companies. Although he does underline that the Commission's attention to the energy sector is a step in the right direction.

"It's only a good thing when European cooperation starts to take a closer look at the this," he says.

(Note: EU Commission spokesperson citations translated from Danish)

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