Inter-European Gas Wars: Europe’s Pursuit of Energy-Cide
There is a gas race in Europe. This rivals the well reported US - Europe gas price difference, due to cheap US shale gas and high European imported gas prices. In an attempt to compete against the US European industry just got handed a price break in the form of lower support payments for the renewable energy sector. However, European countries also compete against each other over the price of electricity, a race to the bottom, or rather Energy-cide: the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices.
This price war also forces countries to develop strategies to keep electricity prices low. An example is Hungary’s deal with the Russians for a ‘low’ cost nuclear power plant. This inter-European energy price war holds significant long-term political and economic costs, which can hobble Europe’s competitiveness and political independence.
The result of this inter-European price war is Russia captures the Crimean prize by understanding how the game is played. The limp EU financial sanctions to hold Russia in-check are framed as the EU punishing Russia. But this is Europe, the ‘unified’ EU action mask the inter-country price wars raging between member states. In each region this plays out differently, for those in the west of Europe (old member states) it is the result of the high initial cost of shifting towards renewable energy and the impact on industry; for those in the east (new member states), it is reliance on Russian gas and householders proportionally high utility bills.
The impact of this price war can be seen playing out in Berlin and Brussels in April, 2014. First the German government approved amendments to its renewable energy law, lowering the cost of German industry financing for renewable energy. Second, the European Commission voted to reduce payments energy intensive industry make to fund the renewable energy shift. The pressure is now intense in Western Europe to reign in energy prices and the real and potential threat of industry flight to the United States. The US, and its cheap shale gas, is held up as a magnet sucking European jobs. Europe feels the coming climate change apocalypse, just as much as a faltering economy, Russian tanks in the Crimea are simply less threatening. But this is a Brussels’ view of the world, in the east the people and politicians feel the heat from Russia.
The Hungarian government continuously lobbies against sanctions on Russia for the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. With Hungary dependent on Russia for gas and nuclear power, its current charade of low energy prices can only be maintained by the wishes of Russia. The Hungarian government secretly inked an agreement with Russia to take a 10 billion euro loan to build two new reactors. Despite no social or political debate, the overriding excuse for such a deal by Hungary’s Prime Minister was lower energy prices – even if the numbers show a doubling of electricity prices. He envisions to have Europe’s most competitive electricity cost for industry and be more competitive than the Czech Republic or Germany. Hungary will be a manufacturing powerhouse fuelled by cheap Russian nuclear power. In return, the Russian’s hold over Hungary a huge mountain of debt which they’ll use to manipulate Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies.
Other countries in Eastern Europe are the same, Bulgaria has been plagued with violent riots over electricity and gas bills. The country’s seven member energy and water regulatory commission had 17 different members and six different chairman in 2013. Poland has lost an environmental minister due to bungling the country’s shale gas ‘revolution’ – it still awaits a commercially viable well. Each country in Eastern Europe has the stated aim of having the cheapest gas and electricity and literally being a regional powerhouse. Each country wants to compete and attract industry from Western Europe. Poland wants chemical manufactures from Germany. Hungary wants auto manufacturers to set up shop. It is a continental race to the bottom.
Russia benefits in spades from intra-European conflict over energy prices while the continent as a whole attempts, by any means, to close the price gap with the US. In 2012, the German border price for gas was four times higher than the US Henry Hub price (even if this is a flawed comparison, it is often made as an excuse for needing lower EU energy prices). To close the price gap, somehow the solution is more Russian gas. Russia’s South Stream pipeline project will avoid Ukraine and deliver the same gas to Europe, without Ukrainian interference. The pipe will traverses the Black Sea, landing in Bulgaria and connecting Serbia, Hungary and Austria. When the going got tough over a year ago for South Stream’s competitor, Nabucco, which would bring non-Russian gas to these same countries, both the United States and the EU failed to step up to ensure its success. The project offered to diversify Eastern Europe’s gas supply. Instead the EU accepted another gas pipeline to Italy – a long running ally of Russia and thus acceptable to both those in Brussels and in Moscow.
The evolving gas map keeps the east boxed in: South Stream and Nord Stream. There is almost zero western support for diversification, the result is high prices and Russian dependency with low security of supply. But is this paranoia? Not when the German partner of South Stream remarks over EU blocked talks with Russia, “If anything, the approval procedures should be accelerated, not delayed,” said Rainer Seele the Chief Executive of Wintershall.
Should the only means of leverage Ukraine holds over Russia be sped up? Just so Ukraine can be eaten faster by Russia? Hungary’s Orban signs secret deals with Russians because he knows he needs to compete against the west on price, Berlin or Paris aren’t going to send cheaper electricity or gas to the east.
The true price masters are the Russians. They see this intra-EU country price competition. They see political leaders hanging by economic-popularity threads, industry bent over a Russian pipeline – sucking gas, Bulgarians protesting over prices and burning utilities’ cars, while Viktor Orban proclaims an energy price war against Brussels while furtively flying off to Moscow. Even the ‘green’ German consumer demands cheaper electricity. Industry perception of the energy system as a whole matters, even if Russian gas is marginal in Western Europe. The closure of German nuclear was perceived as a blow against German industry, another blow is unwelcomed.
The Russians hear from European industrial and political leaders, “take the Crimea, but just help us compete against our European neighbors and America.” Energy-cide, the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices. Russia is the cat and Europe is the mouse. Russia eats part of Ukraine, while Russia also politically binds the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Germans over gas prices. Unless Europe stops its Walmart-like energy price race to the bottom, and shores up energy diversification routes for Eastern Europe, Russia will continue to be the top consumer.
By Michael LaBelle, Assistant Professor of Energy and Sustainability, Central European University, CEU Business School and Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy