Richard North, 19/11/2021  

If we had a country where the media was run by adults, rather than emotionally-retarded bed-wetters, the coming energy crisis would be staying high up on the list of stories being covered at the moment, alongside high-profile parliamentary activity.

This is especially the case as the Mail is reporting that energy prices are a bigger worry than Covid for almost half of Britons, with third leaving the heating off in cold weather and four-in-10 wearing more clothes to curb soaring bills.

Current headlines, therefore, simply reinforce the great disconnect that we saw in PMQs on Wednesday, where MPs seem neither to know nor care what concerns their voters. In this respect, the media is simply part of the continuum – an extended, noise-making bubble.

The nearest thing we get to informed commentary is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph, who offers a rather wonky piece, headed: "An energy crisis is coming, but I'd rather be in Brexit Britain than the EU", telling us that "Europe is at the mercy of Russia's gas supply, and a showdown with Brussels looks certain to blow up".

But for that, I might have been wondering whether my Wednesday piece had veered too far in the direction of alarmism, the sole boy crying "wolf" in the darkness over an issue which seems to be generating little media or political traction.

The strongest indication of preparatory action I have been able to find is from Reuters a week ago, telling of camping gear such as gas cookers and lanterns "flying off the shelves of hardware stores in Spain as people fearing energy shortages and potential blackouts prepare for the winter".

The immediate trigger for the Spanish worries has been the news last month that Algeria, which had cut off diplomatic ties with Morocco, was planning to stop supplying natural gas to Spain via the Maghreb-Europe pipeline, which transits through Morocco.

Despite Algeria undertaking to keep supplying Spain using the Medgaz undersea pipeline, with an annual capacity of 8 billion cubic metres (bcm), this means a loss of a facility with as capacity of 13.5 bcm annually, feeding a market which consumes over 30 bcm a year.

But, if that was not enough, the Spanish environment and energy minister, Teresa Ribera, claiming that reserves were equivalent to 43 days of consumption, recently declared: "We absolutely guarantee quality electricity and gas supply" – which seems to have set off the rush to the shops. To be fair, prime minister Johnson hasn't made such a declaration (yet), which might explain why we have yet to experience similar panic buying.

Anyhow, AEP is trying his best to make up for Johnson's silence, reporting that Europe's energy crunch "has returned with a winter vengeance". We are. He writes, "back to warnings of power rationing and industrial stoppage, a looming disaster for the European Commission and the British government alike".

In his previous pieces, Ambrose has shown a strong predilection to blame Vladimir Putin for our woes, and this article is no different. We learn that he has "tightened his stranglehold on gas", driving up futures contracts for January by 40 percent in barely a week. Prices, he says, are nearing the levels of September’s panic.

What makes the difference this time, he thinks, is that the underlying geopolitical crisis is "an order of magnitude more serious". Russia has mobilized 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border, indicating a "high probability" of military attack this winter.

That would almost certainly lead to Russia shutting off supplies of gas to Europe currently routed through Ukraine, to a continent which is already facing a supply-deficit of 32 million cubic metres a day.

For all that, it is hard to know whether Putin is simply reacting to Europe's declared intention to decarbonise its energy market, thereby favouring China as a customer with greater long-term potential, or whether his "energy squeeze" is a prelude to a Ukrainian invasion.

In an attempt to clarify the issues, though, AEP cites Thierry Bros, a former energy security planner for the French government. His view is that Brussels has stumbled blindly into a Kremlin ambush. "Putin set his master plan in motion last July and August", he says. "I didn't believe it at first but now there can be no doubt. He told us we’d be getting more gas in October but it never came, and November has been worse".

One sign of the Kremlin "closing the trap" is that Gazprom booked "nothing" for December through the Mallnow metering point on the Polish-Belarus pipeline, which means that the current supply deficit is likely to intensify.

Bros continues: "Europe has failed to follow the Churchillian precept of security of supply and has got itself into an existential crisis of its own making out of sheer incompetence. This could cause a break-down of the EU’s integrated energy system and lead to the collapse of the whole bloc".

Some may revel at the idea of EU member states bickering over scarce energy supplies, redolent of the crisis situation following the 1973 Yom Kippur War when OPEC boycotted individual European states which were left to fare for themselves as any semblance of European unity broke down.

AEP notes that EU states resorted instantly to health nationalism at the onset of Covid-19, with Germany blocking exports of PPE equipment without compunction, even within the Single Market and after the goods had been paid for.

Mr Bros thinks that we could see the same dynamic if gas runs short. Member States may invoke national security laws and hoard whatever energy they have rather than feeding it into the common pool, he says, He reminds us that we're running into a presidential election in France. People will scream if our industries are being shut and we're told we have to accept rationing in order to heat the Germans.

If mainland Europe has problems, though, the UK will not be immune. Rather than storing our own gas, we are in effect relying on continental supplies – passed to us either through the Dutch interconnector, or indirectly as electricity via the network of interconnectors that can supply as much as 10 percent of our demand.

With European gas inventories currently at 52 percent in Austria, 61 percent in Holland and 69 percent in Germany - at a time of year when they should be near 100 percent – there will be little available to service the UK market if supplies become tight.

Some small relief might be gained from the Emir of Qatar, who has proved willing to diverted LNG cargoes to the UK and, says AEP, "offshore wind is working as it should and has dented the exorbitant bill for imported gas".

To back this staggering claim, he says that renewables have made up 32 percent of the UK's power over the last week, whereas the grid actually reports only 20 percent – on average. At times, wind has been down to around 2 percent of generated capacity, with coal, gas (including open cycle), pumped storage and biomass thrashing away to meet demand.

But, with gas having supplied over 40 percent of generated electricity over the last year, this is a source of supply we cannot afford to lose. But, says AEP, the UK could follow Japan and switch some gas plants to oil, currently trading at half the price of spot LNG ($180 equivalent).

The UK could also, in extremis book LNG cargoes and hold the tankers at anchor as emergency storage – if it can get the supplies. Then the Government could extend the life of the Hunterston B nuclear plant for a few months until we got through the worst.

But the penultimate word goes to Clive Moffatt, an expert on energy security. He says it is already too late. "There's no short-term fix to this. The grid is going to have to shut down industrial gas users. That is the only way to keep hospitals open and homes heated", he argues.

Even that might not be enough if we have a run of cold weather coinciding with a low wind state, but AEP nevertheless suggests that, if he had to choose, he'd "rather be in Boris's Britain this winter, than Ursula's Europe".

Bluntly, though, it won't make any difference. Blackouts are the same, whatever the language.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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