The UK will cut off gas supplies to mainland Europe if it is hit by severe shortages under an emergency plan that energy companies warn risks exacerbating a crisis on the continent.
With European countries facing the prospect of Russia severing gas exports, the British plan to shut off pipelines to the Netherlands and Belgium risks undermining a push for international co-operation on energy.
A cut off of so-called interconnector pipelines would be among the early measures under the UK’s emergency gas plan, which could be triggered by National Grid if supplies fall short in the coming months.
European gas companies have appealed to the UK to work with the EU and warned shutting off interconnectors could backfire if prolonged shortages occur. Britain imports large volumes of gas from the continent at the height of winter.
“I would definitely recommend they [the UK] reconsider stopping the interconnection [in the event of a crisis],” said Bart Jan Hoevers, president of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas, a powerful group whose members include Italy’s Snam and Fluxys of Belgium.
“Because while it is beneficial for the continent in the summer it is also beneficial for the UK in the winter.”
The UK will stress-test its emergency gas shortage plan in September. National Grid said the plan was tested annually, adding that the latest exercise would “reflect the circumstances” as Russia curtails gas exports to Europe.
The pipelines would be cut as part of a four-step emergency plan if there was a severe shortage of supplies that led to a loss of pressure on the gas system. Other emergency measures include shutting off supplies to large industrial users and appealing to households to reduce consumption.
Germany and the Netherlands this month triggered their own emergency plans, restarting coal plants and urging industry to cut gas usage after Russia cut gas exports.
Since March, two undersea pipelines connecting Britain with Belgium and the Netherlands have been working at maximum capacity, exporting 75mn cubic metres a day of gas to the continent as Europe rushes to build a storage buffer against further Russian cuts.
The UK has minimal gas storage capacity so excess supplies, including imported cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG), are sent to the continent when demand is low in the summer months.
But during very cold winter spells, such as the ‘Beast from the East’ storm in 2018, the UK has received as much as 20-25 per cent of its gas through its two-way interconnectors with EU countries, according to analysts.
Hoevers cautioned that most countries’ emergency protocols were ill-suited for responding to a geopolitical crisis, because they were originally designed to cope with “shorter-term interruptions” such as a malfunction at a gasfield or import terminal, not a prolonged loss of supplies.
Across Europe there “needs to be political arrangements in place to know what we can expect from each other as neighbouring countries in case of a severe crisis,” he said.
The UK government said it was “fully confident” about the security of energy supply heading into the winter, arguing it had “one of the most reliable and diverse energy systems in the world.”
It said it believed a gas emergency was “extremely unlikely”.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London and Joe Miller in Berlin