In addition to saving energy, diversifying our gas imports and accelerating the deployment of renewables, Europe should also look inwards to secure its energy supply. Our continent still holds vast reserves of gas which can help substitute Russian imports – and gas imports in general- and help contain our import bill in the process. By incentivizing their production now while working to implement other REPowerEU measures, European policymakers can make our future energy system even more resilient to supply disruptions.
While boosting Europe’s own gas production was one of the main – if not the first – measures to be taken to gradually substitute Russian gas imports, it was not seriously considered in the REPowerEU action plan published this May which shows that this topic remains a taboo in EU discussions despite the significant long-term potential which could be unlocked.
While Europe’s own production has dropped overtime, together, the EU and Norway still hold a whopping 3470 bcm of known gas reserves[i], equivalent to 22 years of Russian gas supplies. Granted, ramping up the production of these reserves alone will not be enough to replace Russian imports, but it certainly deserves more attention.
In the months and years ahead, Europe will need to use the full range of sustainable options it has at its disposal. If the EU is ready to do what it takes to install 10 million heat pumps in the next five years, find an extra 50 bcm of non-Russian gas imports and produce 35 bcm of biomethane by 2030, and produce 10 million tonnes of domestic renewable hydrogen, why couldn’t it make as well the most of its known gas reserves and try to find additional ones?
In order to build real resilience, our approach to energy security will need to balance affordability, sustainability and strategic autonomy. As recently confirmed by the European Parliament’s vote on its inclusion in the EU Taxonomy – a relief I must say – natural gas will have a key role to play in ensuring the functioning of our energy system while reducing emissions on the way to climate neutrality.
In adapting the European energy system to the new geopolitical reality, maximizing the recovery of our domestic gas resources should be pursued as an objective alongside other measures presented in REPowerEU.
Enough wishful thinking, time to start planning
In 2019, pre-pandemic, the EU produced around 100 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, equivalent to about 20% of its own demand. This figure dropped to around 50 bcm in 2021, sending our reliance on Russian gas imports over 40%.
Political signals suggesting we no longer needed gas, supported by gas demand forecasts disconnected from economic reality certainly aggravated the situation. This was also fueled by activist organizations’ campaigns which facilitated the proliferation of bans and moratoria on oil & gas exploration: why worry about it if gas demand is going to drop by magic?
The post-pandemic recovery showed us all the key role of gas in our societies, from balancing renewables to replacing offline nuclear plants, serving as feedstock in hundreds of industrial processes including the production of fertilizers which has a strong impact on food production, heating households, , fueling glassmakers, and even pasteurizing our morning milk !
In the longer term, the EU will have to compete for gas volumes on the global market. This is why investing in parallel in our domestic production as of today will help mitigate volatility tomorrow, while delivering significant revenues which can help support vulnerable consumers.
EU institutions and Member States can act by lifting existing bans on exploration now, list the remaining regulatory and physical barriers which prevent existing fields from boosting output, fast-tracking permitting processes, or even replicate at EU level and to the extent possible the UK’s Maximizing Economic Recovery (MER) Strategy.
All of this can be accompanied by a long-term plan to gradually transition European oil and gas producing assets so they can deliver the skills, technology and infrastructure needed to meet the EU’s climate neutrality objective, starting with the much-needed development of CCUS technologies.
The EU and Norway’s combined reserves are enough to cover 20% of current EU gas consumption for another 35 years. To this one may add over 5000 bcm of further resources, part of which may be produced as well if economic and technological conditions are met.
These figures may even be revised upwards should the EU decide to encourage exploration for gas. Recently, Greece announced it may hold 600 bcm of recoverable reserves, while Romania intends to produce 10 bcm per year from the Black Sea in 2026!
Can the EU afford to ignore the potential of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea as it tries to replace Russian gas supplies? Should we reconsider the de facto ban on shale gas production in Europe, the same shale gas which made the US a global leader in US gas production, and our main alternative to Russia in the near-term?
Europe, home to oil & gas leaders
The gas industry lifecycle is both time and capital-intensive. Years go by from exploration to site appraisal, and infrastructure development to actual production. If the EU wants to reap the full benefits of its own reserves and limit its future import bill, the time to act and setting the necessary regulatory conditions at EU and national level is now.
The good news is that Europe is home to some of the world’s largest and most efficient oil and gas companies, with world-leading skills, financial capabilities, advanced and innovative technologies. Our companies are the ones that are called upon to help develop the world’s most complex and largest oil and gas projects.
In the EU’s quest to become independent from Russian energy supply, accelerating existing efforts to save energy and develop renewable energies is a no-brainer. Every week, one of our member companies announces the development of a new wind, solar, green hydrogen development, or charging station project.
And every one of them knows how much their gas production assets are complementary for the energy transition underway.
Last but not least, European gas production is subject to the world’s highest environmental standards, resulting in a 30% lower environmental footprint than the global production average, with nearly no upstream methane emissions left to mitigate: each cubic meter of domestically produced gas would therefore help the EU reach climate neutrality faster than with imported volumes.
Given the continued role of gas on the way to EU and global climate neutrality, the risk of stranded assets is minimal. Furthermore, combined with Carbon Capture Use and Storage, our gas reserves can be decarbonized and turned to hydrogen, helping the EU reach its Hydrogen ambitions.
There are many reasons to act, few not to. By breaking the taboo, the EU can walk into the new geopolitical environment stronger than it ever was, and still come out the global climate leader it needs to be.