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UK heads for EU showdown as Russian gas keeps flowing

UK heads for EU showdown as Russian gas keeps flowing

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UK heads for EU showdown as Russian gas keeps flowing

LONDON — The U.K. is heading for another clash with its European allies — this time over Russian gas. 

U.K. Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho will later this month urge European neighbors to stop importing Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG), amid concerns it could end up in the U.K. energy system.

Russian LNG imports into the U.K. have been banned since January 2023, a move hailed by ministers as “decisive action” in sanctions against Vladimir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But experts say that — because of the complex pipe networks used to transmit gas around the continent and with some EU countries still importing it directly from Russia — it is impossible to rule out U.K. exposure to Russian-origin gas unless LNG imports cease across all of Europe.

Coutinho told POLITICO she will raise the issue of Russian LNG imports when European ministers meet at the International Energy Agency (IEA) in France later this month.

She will travel to Paris under pressure from some of her own Conservative colleagues, who are pointing their fingers at the French government in particular.

The U.K. has “led the way” with its crackdown on Russian fossil fuel imports, Coutinho said. She will tell allies that they need to do more to “drive Putin out of the market for good.”

“We are working closely with European allies to help end their dependency and I plan to discuss this at our next IEA meeting in Paris,” Coutinho said.

Exposure

While the EU has drastically reduced its reliance on Russian gas — most of which came to the continent via pipeline — some countries have continued to import ship-borne LNG worth billions of euros since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Spain, France and Belgium are the three biggest importers. The trade was estimated to be worth €16 billion in 2022, with imports down only slightly in 2023.

LNG originating in Russia’s Arctic gas fields is regularly shipped to European ports like Zeebrugge in Belgium and Montoir-de-Bretagne in France, where it is re-gasified and injected into the European gas network or transferred to new ships for re-export to destinations further afield, including China.

It is possible, gas market experts said, that Russian-origin gas molecules arriving in Europe could then enter the U.K. via two cross-Channel gas pipelines that connect Britain’s gas network with mainland Europe and make landfall in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The risk is very small, because the U.K. has only imported small quantities of gas via these pipelines since the war began. Russian LNG also represents a relatively small fraction of overall EU gas supply. Officials at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero argue that it is unlikely Russian-origin gas is currently entering the country, but acknowledge that there is no way to trace the origin of every molecule of gas making its way to the U.K. via the pipelines.

Plus that risk could increase, energy experts said, if there was unexpected disruption to U.K. gas imports from the U.S. or Norway.

‘Close all ports’

“It’s impossible to track individual molecules of gas, and so there’s no way to monitor or guarantee that a Russian molecule re-gasified at a Belgian or French LNG import terminal didn’t make its way through the Interconnector pipeline into the U.K.,” said Alex Froley, LNG market analyst at the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.

However, Froley added, gas flows on the cross-Channel pipelines have been almost entirely “U.K. to EU” over the past two years, largely because Britain has been acting as a bridge for American LNG arriving at the U.K.’s three LNG terminals. 

“The only way to guarantee that the U.K. won’t unknowingly source Russian gas would be to close all European ports to LNG imports from the country,” said Ana Maria Jaller-Makarewicz, lead energy analyst for Europe at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis think tank.

The sanctions regime

Although ministers have often referred to the U.K. “banning Russian gas,” the legislation which underpins the ban only refers to LNG, so any indirect imports via pipeline would not breach U.K. law.

But Conservative MPs said the government needed to do everything it could to close “loopholes” and pressure allies to stop fossil fuel imports that finance Russia’s war on Ukraine.  

“It’s astonishing that France, [which] has done far less than the U.K. and Germany to support Ukraine, continues to undermine the sanctions regime by importing Russian LNG,” said former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith. “The EU should call them out.”

Former Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “This is obviously serious and it is important that, as far as possible, loopholes are closed.”

Svitlana Romanko, founder of the Ukrainian campaign group Razom We Stand, which argues for a total ban on Russian fossil fuel exports, said it was “extremely disheartening to witness European countries like Belgium, France and Spain continue their reliance on Russian LNG, despite ample evidence of its connection to supporting Putin’s war chest.”

Russian LNG imports have become a contentious issue within the EU. Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson has urged member countries to reduce imports, and in December the EU agreed a new mechanism giving capitals more leeway to block Russian companies from their energy markets. It is unclear whether the main importers will use the new powers when they come into effect later this year.

Both the French and Belgian governments were approached for comment. 

An official from Spain’s Ministry of Environment said Energy Minister Teresa Ribera was pressing LNG importers operating in the country not to sign new contracts and “not to increase the presence of Russian LNG in our country.”

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