European Union seeks more time for Opal gas pipeline decision

EU authorities, citing tension in Ukraine, have asked for a delay until at least the end of October on whether to allow Russia greater access to the Opal natural gas pipeline in northeastern Germany, a letter seen by Reuters shows. Russian gas exporter Gazprom is currently allowed only limited access to the pipeline under a European Union law which seeks to prevent energy suppliers from dominating infrastructure. But no-one else has taken up the spare capacity on Opal, which provides a link between Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline to Germany and the Czech Republic. Previously, the European Commission, the EU executive, had a deadline of Sept. 15 for deciding whether to allow Gazprom greater access. « To conclude this assessment, also in the context of the ongoing tensions in Ukraine, which have (a) potential impact on other available routes, a prolongation of the deadline is needed, » Dominique Ristori, director general in the Commission’s energy department, wrote in a letter to the German regulator(BNetzA) dated Sept. 11. He requested an extension until « at least 31 October ». The Russian Energy Ministry has said it was astonished by the Commission’s reluctance to take a decision and that it would have a negative impact on Europe. Opened in 2011, Nord Stream pumps gas from Russia via the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing transit state Ukraine. It can carry up to 55 billion cubic metres a year, but Gazprom, which heads the consortium of shareholders, has been pumping at only around 65 percent of capacity. Opal has a capacity of 36 bcm but has been operating at half that rate for three years. Gazprom halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June because of a dispute over unpaid bills. The cut-off marks the third time in a decade Russia has withheld gas to Ukraine because of pricing disputes. In the two previous instances, onward gas flows were disrupted but Russia says this was because Ukraine took the gas meant for EU customers and not because it was an unreliable supplier. Analysts have said Nord Stream marks the biggest improvement in EU security of supply since those pricing disputes in 2006 and 2009, while the Commission says the EU has taken other significant steps, including introducing reverse flow pipelines to pump east as well as west, increasing storage requirements and seeking new sources of supply. The Commission, the EU executive, said on Monday that flows of Russian gas into eastern Europe were stable after reports of lower supplies into Poland last week. A Commission official said the Commission had agreed with the German regulator to extend the deadline. « The reason for the prolongation is that certain technical aspects require further attention, » the official said, asking not to be named.