Putin has gambled away gas leverage, says German vice-chancellor

Robert Habeck says ‘half of our eggs were in the basket of Putin’ but Germany is now recovering capacity

Vladimir Putin has gambled away his gas leverage over Europe, Germany’s vice-chancellor has claimed as he sounded a note of cautious optimism over his country’s energy supplies during a visit to Norway.

Russia’s war in Ukraine had caught Berlin at a vulnerable moment since it was over-reliant on natural gas deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline and had failed to build up infrastructure for alternative supply channels, said Robert Habeck, the German deputy head of government and economic minister.

“The German problem, or the central European problem, was that half of our eggs were in the basket of Putin,” the Green politician said at a joint press conference with the Norwegian prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, in Oslo. “And he destroyed them.”

At the start of 2023, however, Germany was “one-third done” being able to replace ceased Russian deliveries of gas, oil and coal through other channels, such as speedily built liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and an increase of imports from Norway, now Europe’s largest supplier of gas.

Norway’s energy minister, Terje Aasland, announced on Thursday that Oslo would again be able to deliver 122bn cubic metres of natural gas to Europe this year, up 8% from deliveries in 2021.

While emphasising that Germany’s energy situation remained “very very tight and complicated”, Habeck sounded a note of optimism. “Right now, I can say the storages in Germany are full, around 90%, we will withstand this winter, and the prices are going down.”

With central Europe enjoying a relatively mild winter so far, he said, there was a “fair chance” its storage tanks would not be completely empty at the end of the cold season.

Amid shortages of gas and fears of power outages, European neighbours have voiced incredulity with Germany sticking to its plan to phase out nuclear power – a decision made under the conservative chancellor Angela Merkel but massively pushed for by Habeck’s Greens.

The minister for economic affairs and climate action again dismissed talk of further U-turns on Germany’s nuclear exit plans. His government’s focus was to scale up renewable electricity from about 46% to 80% by 2030, he said, adding: “I would advise everyone to focus on one plan and not disrupt everything again.”

Since gas power plants formerly played a crucial role balancing out fluctuating power production from renewables, Germany will probably have to upgrade its grid and open up new storage options to comply with Habeck’s plan.

The Green politician, who has proved fleet-footed in dancing around the ecological party’s old dogmas in his first year in power, suggested in Norway he would continue in a similar vein in 2023.

In Oslo, Habeck and his Norwegian counterparts signed two declarations to cooperate more closely in areas including hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – two technologies that have in the past proved controversial with the German Greens’ party base.

Habeck said while he had previously shared concerns around the safety of CCS – whereby carbon emissions are trapped in filters and then piped to storage locations underground – Norway’s experience with the technology had proven it was safe and efficient. “Better to put CO2 into the earth than into the air,” he said.

CCS is banned in Germany, but the government of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has recently indicated it would look into putting the use of the technology back on the table.

The hydrogen agreement between Oslo and Berlin foresees Norway providing Germany with “blue hydrogen”, which is low-carbon but not zero-emissions like green hydrogen, the latter being produced by using renewable electricity to drive an electrolyser that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Environmentalists fear scaling up blue hydrogen imports could create new dependencies on fossil fuels.

Habeck on Thursday described green hydrogen as “superior”, but added: “The only thing is, you need a sufficient amount of it,” and as long as production was insufficient, blue hydrogen was potentially a superior alternative to natural gas.


Philip Oltermann in Oslo

The GuardianTramp

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