Gas pipeline shutdown begins as Germans suspect Russia

BERLIN– A major gas pipeline linking Russia to Western Europe was shut down for annual maintenance on Monday, amid fears in Germany that Russia could resume gas flow as planned.

The Nord Stream 1 pipeline runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany and is the latter’s main source of Russian gas. The gas is usually sent to other countries as well. It is scheduled to be out of service until July 21 for routine work which, according to the operator, includes “testing of mechanical elements and automation systems”. Operator data showed gas flow dropped as expected on Monday morning.

German officials are wary of Russia’s intentions, especially after Gazprom last month cut gas flow through Nord Stream 1 by 60%. Gazprom cited technical issues involving a gas turbine powering a compressor station that its partner Siemens Energy sent to Canada for overhaul and which could not be returned due to sanctions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Canada said over the weekend it would allow the part to be delivered to Germany, citing the “very significant difficulties” the German economy would face without an adequate supply of gas.

German politicians dismissed Russia’s technical explanation for cutting gas flows through Nord Stream 1 last month, saying the move was a political gamble aimed at creating uncertainty and driving up prices.

German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck said he suspected Russia was citing “a few small technical details” as a reason for not resuming gas deliveries through the pipeline after maintenance this month.

The head of Germany’s grid regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, said “no one can say exactly” whether gas will be restored.

“We have very varied signals from Russia,” Klaus Mueller told ZDF television. “There are Kremlin spokespersons who say that in combination with the Siemens turbine they can deliver much more again; but there were also very martial messages from the Kremlin.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s energy and foreign ministries said in a joint statement that the return of the Nord Stream 1 turbines “adjusts the sanctions regime to Russia’s whims.”

Germany and the rest of Europe are scrambling to fill gas storage in time for winter and reduce their dependence on Russian energy imports. Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe, uses around 35% of its gas to power industry and generate electricity from Russia.

Last month, Habeck activated the second phase of Germany’s three-stage contingency plan for natural gas supplies, warning that Europe’s biggest economy was facing a “crisis” and that the targets storage for the winter were threatened.

Other countries are also worried about the implications of recent Russian supply cuts via Nord Stream 1 and other routes.

French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said over the weekend that a complete shutdown of Russian gas supplies was a “credible possibility”. He said France needed to go into “battle mode” this summer to prepare for winter, when “we will have to make brave choices” amid likely energy shortages.

“We won’t be able to keep warm and act as if nothing has changed,” Le Maire said. “We have to plan and organize now, we have to change our habits, reduce our (energy) consumption”.

Separately, Italian energy company ENI said Gazprom was cutting its gas delivery on Monday by around a third compared to the average for recent days. ENI said in a statement that Gazprom would supply 21 million cubic meters of gas, compared to an average of around 32 million cubic meters.

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Barbara Surk in Nice, France, and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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