Russia plans to close down the Nord Stream gas pipeline for three days between August 31 and September 2, in a move that will put further strain on the European gas market.
The only working compressor unit at the Portovaya compressor station on the Baltic Sea shore that handles Nord Stream’s gas flow will be closed so that joint maintenance can be carried out by specialists from Gazprom and Germany’s Siemens, the unit’s manufacturer. Once the maintenance has been completed, gas flow will be restored to the current level of 33mn cubic metres per day, representing just above a mere 20% of Nord Stream’s 55bn cubic metre per year overall capacity.
Nord Stream’s capacity has been constrained since mid-June, when Gazprom initially cut flow to 67 mcm per year, citing Siemens’ failure gas turbine equipment as a result of Western sanctions. One turbine in particular was stuck for some time in Canada, where it was undergoing repair, until Canadian authorities provided an exemption to enable its return to Russia. However, the turbine remains stuck in a German port, with Gazprom claiming it needs further assurances concerning Western sanctions to enable it to be delivered to Russia and reinstalled at Portovaya. The German government contests this, however, claiming Gazprom is deliberately stalling on its return.
Germany’s government has vowed to end its dependency on Russian gas imports by mid-2024, and is advancing plans for a series of LNG import terminals to achieve this. This marks a significant U-turn in German policy, as mere weeks before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the government remained in support of the Nord Stream 2, which would have provided Germany with an additional 55 bcm per year of supply.
Faced with the risk of serious gas shortages this winter, however, some German politicians are once again calling for the Nord Stream 2 project to be unfrozen. The latest to do so was Wolfgang Kubicki, vice president of the Bundestag, on August 19, who said the project should go ahead so that the pipeline should be allowed to operate so “people do not have to freeze in winter and that our industry does not suffer serious damage.”
Nord Stream 2 is physically ready to operate, but it requires certification in order to flow gas commercially. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for the certification process to be halted on February 22, after Russia formally recognised the breakaway east Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent, and just two days before Moscow launched its all-out assault on Ukraine.
Kubicki, a member of Finance Minister Christian Lindner’s Free Democrats Party (FDP), one of the three parties in Germany’s ruling coalition, said the pipeline should be activated “as soon as possible” to fill gas storage facilities ahead of winter. He said there was “no sound reason not to open Nord Stream 2”, as Germany was already getting Russian gas supply from Nord Stream, and that getting “gas from Nord Stream 2 is no more immoral than from Nord Stream. It’s just a different pipe.”
His comments drew criticism from several other FDP members, however, including Marie-Agnes Strack Zimmermann, the chair of the Bundestag’s defence committee, who responded by saying “Nord Stream 2 is dead.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also hit back, warning that “addiction to Russian gas kills.” However, his views are apparently not shared by much of the German electorate. According to a Forsa survey, reported by Der Spiegel last week, two thirds of Germans would have no problem with the country receiving gas from Nord Stream 2.
German gas storage facilities are now fairly full, at 78.9% of capacity as of August 20, but the high cost of energy imports is pushing a number of German energy utilities to the brink of bankruptcy, meaning the government may have to step in and offer further bailouts as it did with Uniper earlier this year.