As Boris Johnson told parliament that Europe must wean itself off Russian gas – to loosen ‘Vladimir Putin’s grip on Western politics’ – the oil tanker Nikolay Zubov was returning from British waters to the port of Sabetta in the northern Siberia.

The 300-metre-long vessel had recently delivered a cargo of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Isle of Grain terminal in the Thames Estuary, operated by the National Grid.

Sailing north under a Cypriot ‘flag of convenience’, he charted a course to Russia’s Arctic coast, near the sprawling $27bn (£20bn) Yamal gas facility, personally inaugurated by Putin in 2017.

Main sources of UK gas supply

Britain gets less than 5% of its gas from Russia, either through subsea interconnecting pipelines or by ship to the Isle of Grain and two other LNG facilities at Milford Haven in southern Wales.

In the EU, whose gas market is so intertwined with that of Britain that it effectively determines the prices paid by British end users, the situation is very different.

Russia exports between 150 and 190 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe each year, typically meeting 30 to 40 percent of demand on the continent.

It accounts for 65% of imports to Germany, the European economic engine, and 100% for countries like Latvia and the Czech Republic.

The obstacles to replacing Russian supplies are logistical, financial and political.

So if Europe – and by extension the UK – wants to reduce its dependence on Putin’s pumps, what are the options and how feasible are they, particularly in the short term?

liquefied Natural gas

A cargo of liquefied natural gas docks at the Isle of Grain, UK. Photography: Bloomberg/Getty Images

LNG is a super-chilled gas, condensed in liquid form and transported by ship and “regasified” in specialized terminals.

Ports like Milford Haven and Grain – Europe’s largest LNG terminal – receive regular shipments. In 2020, Russian LNG accounted for 3% of the UK’s total gas supply and, so far at least, there is no indication that shipments are being affected by sanctions.

European ports including Montoir-de-Bretagne in France, Zeebrugge in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands have also welcomed Siberian visitors in recent times. Figures provided by Argus show that Russia has supplied 16% of European LNG since February 2020.

But Russia is far from one of the biggest LNG exporters, a list led by the United States, Qatar and Australia. Qatar is reportedly willing to increase its LNG exports to Europe, and even now LNG shipments from the United States are moored off Milford Haven at South Hook and Dragon terminals.

On paper, Europe has the capacity to import an additional 147 billion cubic meters of LNG per year, Wood Mackenzie analysts say, enough to replace the Russian pipeline entirely.

But Wood Mackenzie European gas analyst Graham Freedman said the change would take “at least a decade” in practice, not least because of a lack of subsequent infrastructure in the right place. Germany, Europe’s leading gas market, does not have LNG import terminals.

Even a temporary change would be extremely costly.

Tom Marzec-Manser, senior European gas analyst at energy consultancy ICIS, pointed out that LNG production is limited and shipments go to the highest bidder. European countries already struggling with exorbitant prices are expected to outbid increasingly gas-hungry Asian economies.

“It’s an incredibly expensive short-term gap fill,” he said.

Alternative pipelines

Gas pipes in Groningen in the Netherlands, where production is shutting down after nearby earthquakes.
Gas pipes in Groningen in the Netherlands, where production is shutting down after nearby earthquakes. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

The British and Norwegian deposits in the North Sea, not to mention the onshore resources of the Netherlands, contain significant reserves, but the possibilities for increasing the flow are limited.

Marzec-Manser said Norwegian state energy company Equinor had increased production but there was “not much more they could do”. UK production in the North Sea is already down, with limited scope for a short-term increase.

The vast Groningen field in the Netherlands is an option in theory but probably not in practice, according to Jefferies analysts. It could provide 13 billion cubic meters, or 9% of Russian supplies. But the Dutch government is shutting down its production after the drilling was found to be causing earthquakes. Overturning this decision seems politically unpalatable.

Nuclear or coal

Germany's Grohnde nuclear power plant, decommissioned at the end of last year.
Germany’s Grohnde nuclear power plant, decommissioned at the end of last year. Photography: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Nuclear power reduces reliance on gas for electricity and the UK generates up to 20% of its electricity this way. With much of the fleet due to be retired by 2025, the government has thrown its weight behind rebuilding this capability. But it takes time and does little to replace gas in cooking or heating homes.

France derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, which protects it much more from the volatility of gas prices. But Germany announced its withdrawal from nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and said in 2019 it would disconnect coal-fired power plants. These decisions have made it more dependent than most major economies on Russian gas.

In practice, Germany is unlikely to change its mind about dismantling nuclear power plants. Given the climate crisis, few European countries are inclined to switch back to coal.

Splitting

Voters in High Wycombe are protesting their MP Steve Baker's support for fracking.
Voters in High Wycombe, England are protesting their MP Steve Baker’s support for fracking. Photography: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

The UK government ordered a moratorium on all new fracking wells in 2019, but the gas price crisis has brought advocates out of the woodwork. Among them are Lord Frost – who chaired Britain’s Brexit negotiations – and Viscount Ridley, who chaired Northern Rock when it collapsed.

The idea is that the UK could emulate the shale gas revolution that has turned the US into a net exporter of energy.

Experts say the opposite – that fracking out of the Ukraine crisis makes no geological, logistical, economic or political sense.

Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School, points out that UK reserves are more difficult to exploit geologically than those in the US.

Unlike the United States, potential sites are surrounded by densely populated areas governed by strict planning laws and populated by people who don’t actually support fracking, making it politically impossible.

Concerns about water and noise pollution persist and even if overcome, fracking would have very little impact on European wholesale prices, while taking years to develop.

“By the time we did that, we probably wouldn’t need gas,” Bradshaw said.

Renewable energy and home insulation

Wind farm blades being built at the Siemens Gamesa offshore blade factory in Hull.
Wind farm blades being built at the Siemens Gamesa offshore blade factory in Hull, England. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, renewables and lower demand, by improving the energy efficiency of homes through better insulation, offer the most obvious long-term solution.

However, this depends on significant investments and improvements in technologies such as battery storage, which compensate for the intermittent supply of technologies such as wind.

Marzec-Manser said the Ukraine crisis may well motivate Europe to go to hell for leather for a renewable future, but it is already moving faster than any other part of the world.

“It’s like trying to shift into sixth gear when your car only has five gears,” he said.