This year adds a few new wrinkles to the annual, "Will Europe Freeze?" month however. For the first time in years, the center of energy disruption does not appear to be the Ukrainian border. Ukraine has paid in full and on time for its use of Russian gas during 2009, and both Russia and Ukraine appear determined to avoid a gas war during an election year. So this year, the energy disputes have shifted north.
First, Belarus and Russia remained locked in heated (excuse the pun) negotiations about oil supply prices between the two countries. Russia has already cut oil supplies to Belarus once this week and many analysts expect further restrictions in the weeks to come. The clash feels all too familiar: Russia, frustrated with its neighbor's overtures to the West decides to throw its weight around in the energy sector to bring it to heel. Of course, the blame also resides with Belarus which has for years subsidized its economy through cheap energy from Russia. If the country truly wants to play on the international arena, it must now be prepared to pay market prices for its resources.
Second, Lithuania has been compelled to shut down its aging nuclear power plant on New Year's Eve, leaving it completely dependent on Russia for its energy supply. The closure was required by the European Union, but leaves Lithuanians feeling very nervous. Russia has already played its energy card in the Baltic, shutting down its oil pipeline to Lithuania in 2007. Energy supply form other EU countries remains extremely weak, and a dramatic increase in energy prices is very likely for this Baltic country already struggling through an extremely difficult recession.
Finally, the UK is approaching capacity limits as it struggles with an extremely cold winter. The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that Britain only has gas storage capacity equivalent to 4% of annual consumption, compared with over 100% storage in the US and 19% in Germany. And National Grid warned this week that supply will be tight in coming weeks.
None of the preceding events really come as a surprise. Despite that, Europe has again been caught off guard. The Spanish Presidency is trying to salvage a July Commission proposal regarding gas security and supply but countries continue to insist the Commission is overstepping its authority. And efforts to encourage greater infrastructure developments within Europe remain merely efforts. So what will it take to really see the development of a true European energy policy? In the US, it took two oil embargoes before the country started developing strategic reserves. And the price of oil reached $160 a barrel before consumer's behavior started to change.
Readers Pat and Pamela both suggested that the Atlantic Review analyze Russian and European energy policy in the upcoming year. This will certainly be an important topic, particularly in the first few months. But at first glance, little has changed. The Russian energy policy of 2010 seems identical to that of preceding years: throw its weight around in the natural resource arena to extract concessions in the political realm. And there still is no real European energy policy to discuss. Europe continues to shiver and simply hope the heat stays on.