PARIS—European manufacturers are preparing for possible natural-gas rationing that would force them to shut production amid fears that Russia is about to cut off gas deliveries via its main artery to Europe.
On Monday the Nord Stream pipeline, which runs 760 miles from northwest Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, will go into annual maintenance for 10 days, repairs that are routine in peaceful times. European officials say that Moscow, which has already cut gas deliveries to 40% of the pipeline’s capacity, might not bring it back online.
The Kremlin says it plans to continue supplying gas through the pipeline once the maintenance is complete and that any disruptions are the fault of Western sanctions that it says have blocked delivery of a turbine for the pipeline that is being repaired in Canada. European capitals, however, say Moscow is wielding its gas supply as a weapon, reducing the pipeline’s deliveries last month in retaliation for their support of Ukraine.
Canada on Saturday said it would send the turbine to Germany after weeks of discussions with the German government. Berlin wants to return it to Russia, saying the move would show that Moscow has been using the turbine as an excuse for a political decision to cut gas deliveries to Europe.
Europe has enough gas for now, but the region’s manufacturers are bracing for a winter without Russian supplies. Some, needing chemicals for production that are made with natural gas, are looking to import them from regions outside Europe where the fuel is more plentiful. Others are planning to switch from natural gas to other fuels where they can. And some producers fear they would have no choice but to shut down completely.
“There are no easy solutions if we get into a curtailment situation,” said
Svein Tore Holsether,
chief executive of
Yara International AS
A, the world’s largest fertilizer producer.
Europe was counting on Russian gas to stock up for the winter when consumption peaks. Without Russian deliveries, officials fear shortages could appear as temperatures fall. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Europe has been buying record amounts of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. and other non-Russian exporters, but those deliveries may not be enough to replace Russian gas, which last year accounted for 40% of the European Union’s overall supply of the fuel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday warned the West against imposing further measures against Moscow.
“Sanctions restrictions against Russia cause much more damage to precisely those countries that impose them,” Mr. Putin said at a government meeting. “Further use of the sanctions policy could lead to even more severe, even catastrophic, consequences in the global energy market.”
SE, one of Europe’s largest utilities, on Friday requested a bailout from the German government after being hit hard by dwindling gas supplies from Russia. Uniper, which is Germany’s largest importer of Russian gas, has had to make up the difference in the spot market, paying higher prices for that gas. France, meanwhile, is moving to nationalize energy giant
which has been losing billions of euros under a government-imposed cap on electricity prices.
The continent’s energy-intensive industries are discussing with governments whether they can reduce gas consumption to reserve scarce supplies for households when winter arrives.
Yara, which has 15 production sites across Europe, uses natural gas to produce ammonia, the key ingredient for nitrogen fertilizer. Yara in the first week of July was running its ammonia operations at close to full production, but Mr. Holsether said the company can ramp down and import ammonia from its other sites in markets around the world where natural gas is more plentiful. The company has taken that step several times over the past year when confronted with spikes in Europe’s natural-gas prices. There are limits to the company’s flexibility, Mr. Holsether said.
“Ammonia-producing assets aren’t really designed to be ramped up and down with fluctuating prices,” he said.
German manufacturers, the motor of European industry, are rushing to prepare for a possible Russian cutoff.
, one of the largest copper producers in Europe, said it was looking to substitute gas with electricity and oil. Gas, however, remains the key fuel for many of its processes and cannot be replaced in the short term, including for some of the work at its Hamburg smelter where more than 2,000 workers produce wires, cathodes and precious metals.
The switch to alternative energy sources has been further complicated by the global supply-chain disruptions. Aurubis estimates the shift could take up to a year.
German company Ritzenhoff AG operates in one of the world’s most energy-intensive industries: glass making. Most of the energy consumed in glass manufacturing comes from natural-gas combustion used to heat furnaces to melt raw materials and form glass. The gas keeps what Axel Drösser, the chief executive, describes as a “glass soup” boiling in tanks at over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
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“Natural gas cannot be substituted here. If there is no gas, the ovens have to be switched off and production comes to a standstill,” he said. In the event that production shuts down, the tanks could be damaged if left idle.
Mr. Drösser said the company, which sells its wares in more than 100 countries, has been trying to reduce its gas consumption including by using some hydrogen. “However, an ad hoc substitution of gas in glass production is not possible with the given infrastructure,” he said.
Looking at a winter without Russian gas, Ritzenhoff has developed two scenarios: a “holding operation,” where production stops but a minimum amount of glass is still kept liquid to preserve the tanks, and a complete shutdown.
The Coatinc Company Holding GmbH, one of Germany’s oldest family-run businesses at over 500 years old, provides a crucial service for many industries using steel: galvanizing, or dipping the steel into molten zinc in huge kettles, to prevent corrosion. To melt the zinc, it is 90% dependent on gas.
While Coatinc is looking to switch to electricity longer term, it would take a few years and an investment of around 16 million euros, equivalent to $16.4 million.
But if the gas stops this winter, so will the company’s production. In that case, Paul Niederstein, the executive manager, hopes he would have two weeks’ notice so that the firm can pump out some 7,000 tons of liquid zinc from the kettles, cool it down and store it.
Mr. Niederstein said he is currently trying to persuade German authorities, who would decide who gets gas in the case of rationing, that his industry is critical and should be given priority.
“Galvanized steel is used to construct solar fields and other renewable-energy infrastructure,” he said. “We’re not making chocolate here.”
Some companies that had planned to use gas instead of oil or coal as part of plans to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions are now backtracking because of the looming gas shortage.
operates two coal-fired power plants at its headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, which provide heat and power for the plant and the city. In 2018, VW said it would invest €400 million to shift to gas, saving 1.5 million metric tons a year in CO2 emissions.
The shift was expected to be completed by the end of this year. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent gas-supply crisis, VW CEO
said the company could prolong the use of coal.