Estonia in favor of extending European Commission gas consumption limit

Estonia's European Commissioner Kadri Simson (Center).
Estonia's European Commissioner Kadri Simson (Center). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Estonia plans to support a European Commission proposal to extend the period of time in which European Union member states were asked to limit their gas consumption.

The period is set to expire on March 31, and was put in place after Russia's invasion of Ukraine starting February 24, 2022, given the high dependency many of the major EU member states had on Russian natural gas imports, and also Russia's intentional reduction in supplies to EU states in response to sanctions placed on it.

The limit requested member states cut their gas consumption by 15 percent; the proposal to extend this by a year comes ahead of the EU energy ministers' meeting taking place Tuesday.

Estonians European Commissioner, Kadri Simson (Center), holds the energy portfolio.

Estonia's position, supporting the consumption limit extension, states that: "We support the proposal to extend the regulation which establishes the voluntary goal of reducing natural gas consumption throughout the EU and for each of the member states, through to March 31, 2024."

The European Commission initiated the voluntary reduction in gas consumption on the part of EU member states mid-way through 2022.

Kadri Simson told reporters in Tallinn on Friday that the EU had headed off a potential energy crisis, and successfully survived the winter, in the context of sanctions imposed on Russia for attacking Ukraine.

Russia responded to the sanctions by partly suspending gas supplies, and has also seen its own volume of natural gas exports drop by more than half.

Whereas before the war, Russia delivered about 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe, last year this volume dropped to about 60 billion cubic meters, and this year it is expected to be around 20 billion cubic meters, Simson said. 

To compensate for the absence of Russian gas, the EU imported more natural gas from Norway, as well as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Voluntary reductions in gas consumption, achieved mainly through savings, also played a role, culminating in the building up of reserves of 43 billion cubic meters of natural gas across the EU last year.

While winter in Estonia started early and was snowy, generally the winter across the EU has been mild, which was also a factor in the lower consumption levels, Simson added.

Thanks to the efforts, by the end of March, 55 percent of Europe's gas storages have already been filled. However, only 100 billion cubic meters can be stored in storage, which is not enough to survive the winter in Europe without supplies.

Estonia already sharply cut its gas consumption

According to an overview prepared by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Estonia was able to reduce its gas consumption by far more than the European Union set as a target.

While Estonia's annual gas consumption has usually been at around the 5TWh-per-year mark, before the invasion, in 2022, consumption fell by 26 percent on year, to 3.77TWh, the lowest volume in the last decade.

The drop was particularly noticeable during the high-consumption winter months, even as the winter of 2022-2023 has been quite long and snowy.

Ministry data cites a 41-percent fall in natural gas consumption on year to December 2022.

Meanwhile the corresponding figure for January the figure was 35 percent, and 29 percent for February.

According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, in December 2022, gas consumption decreased by as much as 41 percent compared to December 2021, and in 2023, the decrease in consumption has continued: 35 percent in January compared to January of the previous year and 29 percent in February.

The reduced consumption has been achieved on a macro scale via energy savings and the use of alternative fuels, such as shale oil and wood chips, at district heating plants which had previously used natural gas (district heating comprises hot water piped into many apartment blocks and centrally controlled; in Narva, for instance, hot water that is a by-product of oil shale-fired electricity generation is also used for this purpose).

On a micro scale, a run on heat pumps (which double up as air conditioners in the summer) contributed to a drop in natural gas consumption, as did the soaring prices themselves.

The ministry says that 2023's consumption is set to match that of 2022 in Estonia in any case.

While a full EU ban on Russian gas imports has not materilaized in that some member states obtain natural gas via Turkey and Ukraine, Estonia stopped importing Russian gas in April last year.

From the start of this year, the purchase of Russian natural gas was banned.

The EU energy ministers' meeting is to take place in Brussels on Tuesday, with Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications Riina Sikkut (SDE) representing Estonia.

Other items on the meeting agenda include legislative initiatives regarding common rules for internal markets of gases and natural gas and hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources, on the internal market for natural gas and renewable hyndrogen, and a political exchange of ideas on the draft organization of the electricity market. 

Natural gas prices, like those of electricity, have dropped substantially, for the time being, since the record levels set, and re-set, from late summer 2021 to late 2022.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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