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Energy

Just how important is Russian gas for Europe?

More than 70 percent of Germany’s energy supply depends on imports. Russia alone accounts for a quarter of Germany’s gas, oil and coal imports. And real alternatives are not yet in sight.

Germany faces a renewed debate on energy in the wake of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. To a large extent, the country depends on Russian oil and natural gas imports. Just recently Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that "all of Germany's energy policies must be reconsidered." According to Germany's Energy Balances Group (AGEB), imported rose to 71 percent of all sources of energy last year.

The most important energy supplier is Russia: It provides 38 percent of Germany's natural gas imports, 35 percent of all oil imports and 25 percent of coal imports, covering a quarter of the country's entire energy needs. There are no suitable alternatives in sight that could cover shortfalls of this magnitude.

Germany can supply only 15 percent of its gas needs using its own resources, the Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) says. Most of its gas is supplied by Norway and the Netherlands. Both countries could increase their short-term shipments via pipelines, but not in the long run, because experts believe North Sea gas reserves are slowly being used up.

Fracking not yet on the agenda

A fracking derrick 
(Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/epa/dpa )

The German government has ruled out most fracking in its coalition agreement

Importing cooled, liquefied gas in tank ships from Algeria, Qatar or the US is an alternative - in theory. But US ports lack facilities to handle liquefied natural gas, and Germany does not have the corresponding unloading stations. In addition, it is very difficult to purchase large amounts at short notice on the global market. Supplies are already short because Japan has been importing large amounts of gas since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Dependence on Russsian gas imports has also increased interest in natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into shale rocks to fracture them and release the gas. Environmentalists say the technology is highly risky. In Germany, only the northern state of Lower Saxony has decided to allow fracking, and then only under certain conditions.

Populous North Rhine-Westfalia has decided against fracking, even though a state geological service says more than 220 billion cubic meters of gas can be found in depths of up to 4,000 meters - significantly more than all of Germany's known conventionally extractable natural gas reserves, which total about 150 billion cubic meters. At an extraction rate of 12 billion cubic meters annually, the current reserves would last Germany little more than a decade.

Fracking in North Rhine-Westphalia would more than double that time span. But in the foreseeable future there won't be a political majority in support of it. Furthermore, the German government ruled out fracking in its coalition agreement if toxic substances are used. If this does not change, Germany will be forced to import all its gas in the foreseeable future.

Influence through companies

Another reason there is no alternative to gas imports is that the German government decided to stop coal production in 2018. Germany already imports coal, and 25 percent of these imports are from Russia. Germany's lignite deposits could last for the next 200 years at current rates of extraction.

Gazprom headquarters
(Photo: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

Gazprom wants to buy the RWE subsidary Dea

But Germany's dependence on Russian energy is due not only to imports, but also to the relations between energy companies. For example, Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom and Germany's Wintershall, a subsidiary of chemicals firm BASF, agreed on a significant exchange of shares. This gave gas storage and extra trading capacity to Gazprom and in return Wintershal received shares in Siberian gas fields.

Gazprom and Wintershall also jointly own the 2,300-kilometer German pipeline network "Gascade." But Russia now controls Germany's gas storage - and with it, the safety margin of the German gas supply. The German economics ministry evidently has no worries about the deal.

German utilities company RWE is still waiting for the green light for the sale of its oil and gas exploitation subsidiary Dea. Wintershall and Dea are the only two German companies that have enough expertise to perform fracking. Last year Dea reported a profit of 521 million euros.

But due to a debt burden of 30 billion euros, RWE desperately needs new funding. Therefore the electric utility has welcomed the 5.1 billion euros that Luxembourg-based L1 Energy is willing to pay. L1 is owned by the second-richest Russian oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, who has close ties to the Kremlin and state-owned Rosneft.

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