Marking a milestone in the tumultuous journey towards a unified energy policy, the European Union (EU) member states have initiated joint procurement of a portion of their gas consumption. This coordinated effort has been facilitated through a gas purchasing mechanism, the AggregateEU, as of May 2023. In this policy brief we discuss the challenges this mechanism faces, given its design characteristics and the altered dynamics of the gas market following the energy crisis.
The necessity for a coordinated approach to energy security within the EU has been recognized at least since 2009, when its legal base was explicitly introduced in Article 194 of the Treaty of Lisbon. However, the de facto implementation of the solidarity principle has been lagging for many years. In response to the 2022 surge in gas prices, the EU has at last taken the solidarity approach to common energy security seriously. One of the most prominent steps is the creation of the AggregateEU mechanism, launched at the end of 2022. This mechanism aggregates the demand of registered buyers from different member states and matches it with competitive bids from external gas suppliers. It aims at improving and diversifying the EU gas supply, avoiding unnecessary buyer competition within the EU and building up the buyer power of EU member states. Furthermore, the mechanism is meant to reduce uncertainty and mitigate price volatility by providing information about accessible energy supplies. The mechanism covers both pipeline natural gas and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and organizes tenders every two months. While EU member states are required to submit demand bids for 15 percent of their 90 percent storage targets for the upcoming 2023-24 season through the mechanism, there is no obligation to sign any contracts based on the resulting match (more details can be found here and here).
The first three rounds of tendering via the mechanism, which took place May-October 2023, matched approximately 34 billion cubic meters of natural gas, exceeding the anticipated initial volumes. This outcome is currently perceived as a great achievement, enabling more vulnerable countries to benefit from coordinated purchases and resulting in increased bargaining power. Driven by this success, the European Commission (EC) has considered making demand aggregation via the mechanism a permanent feature of the EU’s gas market – and even extending it to hydrogen. However, while these agreed trades are a positive development, they may not reflect the mechanism’s overall success. Demand submission obligations may increase the number of demand calls which could project into more matches, but as they are not binding the subsequent agreements may not necessarily result in finalized contracts or lower prices.
In this brief, we argue that the mechanism’s benefits remain uncertain, primarily due to the current state of the EU’s gas market and the design flaws arising from efforts to address disparities in energy security among member states. These considerations call for a direct impact assessment, which however remains impossible due to the EC’s inability (or even reluctancy?) to collect and disclose the contracted outcomes resulting from the mechanism matches. This is especially problematic in light of the EC’s intentions to extend the mechanism’s coverage.
Limited Mechanism Benefits Under New Market Trends
Over the past two years, the EU has undertaken drastic efforts to address the energy security concerns within its gas market caused by the radical reduction in Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe. The EU has managed to sizably improve the diversification of its gas imports (see Figure 1), fill its storage facilities, and lower its gas demand (see McWilliams, Sgaravatti, and Zachmann (2021) and McWilliams and Zachmann (2023)).
Figure 1. Composition of EU natural gas imports.
As a result, a certain balance of supply and demand has been achieved, and the gas prices in the EU market have fallen to pre-war price levels (though they are still somewhat higher than their earlier long-term trend), as depicted in Figure 2. The ease of market tensions in 2023 has led many to argue that market forces are sufficient to resolve potential problems in the EU gas market and that mechanism costs would not be justified (see, e.g., Eurogas or International Association of Oil and Gas Producers opinions).
However, in the coming years the EU gas market is expected to be relatively tight due to capacity constraints both in the LNG market and for pipeline gas producers (as noted by, e.g., Bloomberg and IEA). This tightness makes the market highly sensitive to shocks, and a twofold increase in exposure to LNG – with its global liquidity – only adds to the problem. A good illustration of this concern is the recent market reaction to the Israel-Palestine war: the fear of supply disruptions lead to a whopping 55 percent increase in the European gas tariff TTF in the second week of October and to an EC initiative to prolong the emergency gas price cap, initially introduced in February 2023. This despite the EU’s gas storage nearing 98 percent of capacity and relatively low current prices.
Such a “seller market” situation implies that buyers’ ability to exercise buyer power and negotiate down prices may be highly limited when needed the most. Specifically, buyer power would be most effective when buyers have a credible outside option, e.g., the ability to claim that their gas demand needs can be facilitated elsewhere. The tighter the market, the more difficult it would be to find such volumes elsewhere, further limiting buyers’ ability to negotiate down prices. To put it differently: current market conditions may undermine the original purpose of the mechanism.
The current “shock-sensitivity” of the gas market may also give rise to additional concerns regarding the mechanism’s mere purpose – demand aggregation for vulnerable buyers. One of the by-products of demand aggregation is that (pooled) buyers are more likely to face correlated risks, e.g., by purchasing gas from the same producer. If markets are highly shock-sensitive – as they currently seem to be – such aggregation may further increase market volatility, implying that vulnerable buyers would be affected the most.
Figure 2. Natural gas prices in the EU, January 2021-October 2023 (prices in EUR).
Mechanism Design: Constraints vs. Efficiency
Some design elements of the purchasing mechanism may also challenge the mechanism’s ability to deliver an efficient outcome. First, quantity and price under the matching process are not binding, and buyers and sellers are expected to continue negotiations individually after the matching. This feature was introduced due to the concern that it would be challenging to offer a “one size fits all” binding contract to incorporate all participants of the pooled demand. This, as argued by Le Coq and Paltseva (2012; 2022), was one of the reasons for the previous failure to implement a mutual insurance and solidarity mechanism across the EU. However, the non-binding matching outcome will likely give rise to re-negotiations, price increases, and failure to exercise consolidated “buyer power”.
Moreover, a company can act on behalf of small or financially constrained buyers, purchase gas for them, and become an “Agent-on-behalf” and “Central Buyer”. In the process, companies will inevitably exchange sensitive information. This may limit competition and increase the market power of the “Central Buyer” company. In addition, firms may choose not to participate in the mechanism for at least two reasons. First, they may fear the threat of revealing valuable private information. Second, demand aggregation may discourage market participants with stronger buyer positions from participating, as being pooled with weaker participants would undermine their bargaining power. Both these cases would create a so-called adverse selection effect, where the more performant market participants would choose to avoid the joint purchasing mechanism. As a result, the joint buyer power may be strongly undermined, and the price-suppressing effect seems uncertain. This may explain why some firms, like several large German firms, have opted to sign long-term contracts with gas suppliers directly rather than via the mechanism
Several of these concerns arise not from the mechanism design per se but rather in combination with the inherent asymmetries between EU buyers, including variations in gas demand, risk exposure, etc. To put it differently: it is well justified that a “one size fits all” approach would fail in ensuring broad (and voluntary) mechanism participation; however, the choice of a more flexible solution, as implemented by the AggregateEU mechanism, creates commitment issues and adverse selection, and may undermine an effective use of buyer power.
Impact Assessment: Necessary but Currently Impossible
The new EU gas purchasing system is a significant step towards creating a unified energy policy. However, the design of such a procurement auction raises concerns about its contribution, especially under the new gas market dynamics. The current low gas prices make the immediate cost-benefit tradeoff of the mechanism nonobvious. More importantly, the tightness of the EU gas market in the next few years makes the “seller” power unlikely to be counteracted by the EU’s buyer power. Further, the absence of legal commitment between matched participants, and increased market volatility can lead to repeated ex-post renegotiations. These elements undermine the mechanism’s role and raise doubts about its benefits. Some of the mechanism’s inherent features, such as incentives for abuse of market power, also contribute to potential efficiency loss.
Hence, while the motivation behind this tool is clear, the implementation and potential design flaws may undermine the gains. It is therefore particularly important to understand whether the mechanism is effectively meeting its objectives, especially given the recent initiative to make it a permanent feature of the EU gas market and a key solution for the European Hydrogen Bank in the future. These considerations make a strong call for an impact assessment. An unbiased measure of AggregateEU’s impact would be necessary to assess the benefits of the mechanism (and to weigh them against the bureaucratic implementation costs). Currently, however, the EC has chosen not to collect, let alone disclose, the contractual outcomes resulting from matches. In a recent interview, Matthew Baldwin, deputy director-general at the EC’s energy directorate, said, “The reality is we’ve had relatively little feedback so far because companies are not required to give that to us in terms of the deals”. One may argue that many of the potential deficiencies of the mechanism design – e.g., non-binding matching and adverse selection – are justified by asymmetries across participants and other inherent market features. However, the absence of (appropriately desensitized) data about actual outcomes resulting from mechanism matches is more difficult to justify. The lack of data prevents us from evaluating the AggregateEU’s performance and raises additional concerns about its efficiency. Thus, gathering relevant information and conducting a comprehensive impact assessment based on sensible criteria are essential prerequisites for the future use, and expansion of the AggregateEU mechanism.
- Le Coq, C. and E. Paltseva. (2012). Assessing Gas Transit Risks: Russia vs. the EU, Energy Policy (4), 642-650. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2011.12.037
- Le Coq, C. and E. Paltseva. (2022). What does the Gas Crisis Reveal About European Energy Security? FREE Policy Brief, https://freepolicybriefs.org/2022/01/24/gas-crisis-european-energy/
- McWilliams, B., Sgaravatti, G. and G. Zachmann. (2021). ‘European natural gas imports’, Bruegel Datasets. https://www.bruegel.org/publications/datasets/european-natural-gas-imports/
- McWilliams, B. and G. Zachmann. (2023). ‘European natural gas demand tracker’, Bruegel Datasets. https://www.bruegel.org/dataset/european-natural-gas-demand-tracker
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Policymakers in Europe are currently faced with the difficult task of reducing our reliance on Russian oil and gas without worsening the situation for firms and households that are struggling with high energy prices. The two options available are either to substitute fossil fuel imports from Russia with imports from other countries and cut energy tax rates to reduce the impacts on firms and household budgets, or to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels entirely by investing heavily in low-carbon energy production. In this policy brief, we argue that policymakers need to also take the climate crisis into account, and avoid making short-term decisions that risk making the low-carbon transition more challenging. The current energy crisis and the climate crisis cannot be treated as two separate issues, as the decisions made today will impact future energy and climate policies. To exemplify how large-scale energy policy reforms may have long-term consequences, we look at historical examples from France, the UK, and Germany, and the lessons we can learn to help guide us in the current situation.
The war in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions against Russia have led to a sharp increase in energy prices in the EU since the end of February 2022. This price increase came after a year when global energy prices had already surged. For instance, import prices for energy more than doubled in the EU during 2021 due to an unusually cold winter and hot summer, as well as the global economic recovery following the pandemic and multiple supply chain issues. Figure 1 shows that the price of natural gas traded in the European Union has increased steadily since the summer of 2021, with a strong hike in March 2022 following the beginning of the war.
Figure 1. Evolution of EU gas prices, July 2021-May 2022
Concerns about energy dependency, towards Russian gas in particular, are now high on national and EU political agendas. An embargo on imports of Russian oil and gas into the EU is currently discussed, but European governments are worried about the effects on domestic energy prices, and the economic impact and social unrest that could follow. Multiple economic analyses argue, however, that the economic effect in the EU of an embargo on Russian oil and gas would be far from catastrophic, with estimated reductions in GDP ranging from 1.2-2.2 percent. But a reduction in the supply of fossil fuels from Russia would need to be compensated with energy from other sources, and possibly supplemented with demand reductions.
In parallel, on April 4th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on climate change. One chapter analyses different energy scenarios, and finds that all scenarios that are compatible with keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C involve a strong decrease in the use of all fossil fuels (Dhakal et al, 2022). This reduction in fossil fuel usage over the coming decades is illustrated in red in Figure 2.
It is thus important that, while EU countries try to decrease their dependency on Russian fossil fuels and cushion the effect of energy-related price increases, they also accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. And how they manage to balance these short- and long-run objectives will depend on the energy policy decisions they make. For instance, if policymakers substitute Russian oil and gas with increased coal usage and new import terminals for LNG, this can lead to a “carbon lock in” and make the low-carbon transition more challenging. In this policy brief, we analyze what lessons can be drawn from past historical events that lead to large-scale structural changes in energy policy. Events that all shaped our current energy systems and conditions for climate policy.
Figure 2. Four energy scenarios compatible with a 2°C temperature increase by 2100.
Structural Changes in Energy Policy in France, the UK, and Germany
We focus on three “energy policy turning points” triggered by three geopolitical, political or environmental crises: the French nuclear plan triggered by the 1973 oil crisis; the UK early closure of coal mines and the subsequent dash for gas in the 1990s, influenced by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979; and the German nuclear phase-out triggered by the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe.
In response to the global oil price shock of 1973, France adopted the “Messmer plan”. The aim was to rapidly transition the country away from dependence on imported oil by building enough nuclear capacity to meet all the country’s electricity needs. Two slogans summarised its goals: “all electric, all nuclear”, and “in France, we may not have oil, but we have ideas” (Hecht 2009). The first commissioned plants came online in 1980, and between 1979-1988 the number of reactors in operation in France increased from 16 to 55. As a consequence, the share of nuclear power in the total electricity production rose from 8 to 80 percent, while the share of fossil fuels fell from 65 to 8 percent.
Figure 3. French electricity mix
In the UK, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 opened the way for large market-based reform of the energy sector. Thatcher’s plan to close dozens of coal pits triggered a year-long coal miners’ strike in 1984-85. The ruling Conservative party eventually won against the miners’ unions and the coal industry was deeply restructured, with a decrease in domestic employment – not without social costs (Aragon et al, 2018) – and an increase in coal imports. At the same time, the electricity market’s liberalization in the 1990s facilitated the development of gas infrastructure. As an indirect and unintended consequence, when climate change became a prominent issue at the global level in the 2000s, there was no strong pro-coal coalition left in the UK (Rentier et al, 2019). Aided by a portfolio of policies making coal-fired electricity more expensive – a carbon tax in particular – the coal phase-out was relatively easy and fast (Wilson and Staffel, 2018, Leroutier 2022): between 2012 and 2020, the share of coal in the electricity production dropped from 40 to 2 percent.
In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan triggered an early and unexpected phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany. The 2011 “Energiewende” (energy transition) mandated a phase-out of nuclear power plants by 2022, while including provisions to reduce the share of fossil fuel from over 80 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2050. The share of nuclear energy in the electricity production in Germany was halved in a decade, from 22 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2020. At the same time, the share of renewable energy increased from 13 to 36 percent, and that of natural gas from 14 to 17 percent.
In these three examples, climate objectives were never the main driver of the decision. Nevertheless, in the case of France and the UK, the crisis resulted in an energy sector that is arguably more low-carbon than it would have been without the crisis. Although the German nuclear phase-out was accompanied by large subsidies to renewable energies, its effect on the energy transition is ambiguous: some argue that the reduction in nuclear electricity production was primarily offset by an increase in coal-fired production (Jarvis et al, 2022).
The three crises also had different consequences in terms of dependence on fossil fuel imports. The French nuclear plan resulted in an arguably lower energy dependency on imported fossil fuels. The closure of coal mines in the UK had ambiguous effects on energy security, with an increase in coal imports and the use of domestic gas from the North Sea. Finally, Germany’s nuclear phase-out, combined with the objective of phasing out coal, has been associated with an increase in the use of fossil fuels from Russia: gas imports remained stable between 2011 and 2020, but the share coming from Russia increased by 60 percent over the period. In 2020, Russia stood for 66 percent of German gas imports (Source: Eurostat). Which brings us back to the current war in Ukraine.
The Current Crisis is Different
The context in which the current energy crisis is unfolding is different from the three above-mentioned events in two important ways.
First, scientific evidence on the relationship between fossil fuel use, CO2 emissions and climate damages has never been clearer: we know quite precisely where the planet is heading if we do not drastically reduce fossil fuel use in the coming decade. From recent research in economics, we also know that price signals work and that increased prices on fossil fuels result in lower demand and emission reductions (Andersson 2019; Colmer et al. 2020; Leroutier 2022). High fuel prices can also have long-term impacts on consumption patterns: US commuters that came of driving age during the oil prices of the 70s, when gasoline prices were high, still drive less today (Severen and van Benthem, 2022). The other way around, low fossil fuel prices have the potential to lock in energy-intensive production: plants that open when electricity and fossil fuel prices are low have been found to consume more energy throughout their lifetime, regardless of current prices (Hawkins-Pierot and Wagner, 2022).
Second, alternatives to fossil fuels have never been cheaper. It is most obvious in the case of electricity production, where technological progress and economies of scale have led to a sharp decrease in the cost of renewable compared to fossil fuel technologies. As shown in Figure 4, between 2010 and 2020 the cost of producing electricity from solar PV has decreased by 85 percent and that of producing electricity from wind by 68 percent. From being the most expensive technologies in 2010, solar PV and wind are now the cheapest. Given the intermittency of these technologies, managing the transition to renewables requires developing electricity storage technologies. Here too, prices are expected to decrease: total installed costs for battery electricity storage systems could decrease by 50 to 60 percent by 2030 according to the International Renewable Agency.
Finding alternatives to fossil fuels has historically been more challenging in the transport sector. However, recent reductions in battery costs, and an increase in the variety of electric vehicles available to customers, have led to EVs taking market share away from gasoline and diesel-powered cars in Europe and elsewhere. The costs of the battery packs that go into electric vehicles have fallen, on average, by 89 percent in real terms from 2010 to 2021.
Figure 4. Evolution of the Mean Levelised Cost of Energy by Technology in the US
Options for Policy-Makers
Faced with a strong increase in fossil fuel prices and an incentive to reduce our reliance on oil and gas from Russia, policy-makers have two options: increase the availability and decrease the price of low-carbon substitutes – by, for example, building more renewable energy capacity and subsidizing electric vehicles – or cut taxes on fossil fuels and increase their supply, both domestically and from other countries.
Governments have pursued both options so far. On the one hand, the Netherlands, the UK, and Italy announced an expansion of wind capacities compared to what was planned, in an attempt to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, and France ended gas heaters subsidies. On the other hand, half of EU member states have cut fuel taxes for a total cost of €9 billion by the end of March 2022, the UK plans to expand oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, and Italy might re-open coal-fired plants.
To guide policymakers faced with the current energy crisis, there are valuable lessons to draw from the experiences of energy policy reform in France, the UK and Germany. France’s push for nuclear energy in the 1970s shows that large-scale structural reform of electricity and heat production is possible and may lead to large drops in CO2 emissions and an economy less dependent on domestic or foreign supplies of fossil fuels. A similar “Messmer plan” could be implemented in the EU today, with the goal of replacing power plants using coal and natural gas with large-scale solar PV parks, wind farms and batteries for storage. Similarly, the German experience shows the potential danger of implementing a policy to alleviate one concern – the risk of nuclear accidents – with the consequence of facing a different concern later on – the dependence on fossil fuel imports.
One additional challenge is that the current energy crisis calls for a short-term response, while investments in low-carbon technologies made today will only deliver in a few years. Short-term energy demand reduction policies can help, on top of long-term energy efficiency measures. For example, a 1°C decrease in the temperature of buildings heated with gas would decrease gas use by 10 billion cubic meters a year in Europe, that is, 7 percent of imports from Russia. Similarly, demand-side policies could reduce oil demand by 6 percent in four months, according to the International Energy Agency.
Ending the reliance on Russian fossil fuels and alleviating energy costs for firms and households is clearly an important objective for policymakers. However, by signing new long-term supply agreements for natural gas and cutting energy taxes, policymakers in the EU may create a carbon lock-in and increase fossil fuel usage by households, thereby making the inevitable low-carbon transition even more difficult. The solutions thus need to take the looming climate crisis into account. For example, any tax relief or increased domestic fossil fuel generation should have a clear time limit; more generally, all policies decided today should be evaluated in terms of their contribution to domestic and European climate objectives. In this way, the current energy crisis is not only a challenge but also a historic opportunity to accelerate the low-carbon transition.
- Andersson, Julius J. 2019. “Carbon Taxes and CO2 Emissions: Sweden as a Case Study.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 11(4): 1-30.
- Aragón, F. M., Rud, J. P., & Toews, G. 2018. “Resource shocks, employment, and gender: Evidence from the collapse of the UK coal industry.” Labour Economics, 52, 54–67. doi: 10.1016/j.labeco.2018.03.007
- Colmer, Jonathan, et al. 2020. “Does pricing carbon mitigate climate change? Firm-level evidence from the European Union emissions trading scheme.” Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper, No. 1728, November 2020.
- Dhakal, S., J.C. Minx, F.L. Toth, A. Abdel-Aziz, M.J. Figueroa Meza, K. Hubacek, I.G.C. Jonckheere, Yong-Gun Kim, G.F. Nemet, S. Pachauri, X.C. Tan, T. Wiedmann, 2022: Emissions Trends and Drivers. In IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926.004
- IPCC. 2022. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al hourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926
- Hawkins-Pierot, J & Wagner, K. 2022, “Technology Lock-In and Optimal Carbon Pricing,” Working Paper
- Hecht, Gabrielle. 2009. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. MIT press.
- Jarvis, S., Deschenes, O., & Jha, A. 2022. “The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out.” Journal of the European Economic Association, jvac007. doi: 10.1093/jeea/jvac007
- Leroutier, M. 2022. “Carbon pricing and power sector decarbonization: Evidence from the UK.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 111, 102580. doi: 10.1016/j.jeem.2021.102580
- Le Coq, C & Paltseva,E. 2022. “What does the Gas Crisis Reveal About European Energy Security?” FREE Policy Brief
- Rentier, G., Lelieveldt, H., & Kramer, G. J. 2019. “Varieties of coal-fired power phase-out across Europe.” Energy Policy, 132, 620–632. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2019.05.042
- Severen, C., & van Benthem, A. A. (2022). “Formative Experiences and the Price of Gasoline.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 14(2), 256–84. doi: 10.1257/app.20200407 :
- Wilson, I.A.G., Staffell, I., 2018. “Rapid fuel switching from coal to natural gas through effective carbon pricing.” Nature Energy 3 (5), 365–372.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, the West has been contemplating sanctions on Russian oil and gas imports. For the EU, this plan poses a significant challenge due to the long-existing sizable dependency on Russian energy. In this brief, we outline the possible effects of banning Russian oil and gas on the energy import bill across the EU. While the effects of such a ban will go beyond a direct increase in the import costs of oil and gas, our estimates provide a useful reference point in discussing the impact of such sanctions on the EU. Our estimates suggest that the relative increase in the import costs in the case of an oil embargo would be more evenly spread across the Member States, than in the case of a natural gas ban. This parity makes an EU-wide Russian oil embargo a more straightforward sanction policy. In turn, a full replacement of Russian gas imports across the EU – due to either a gas embargo or retaliation from Russia in response to an oil ban – is likely to require some kind of solidarity mechanism.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has been discussing the idea of sanctioning the aggressor by banning Russian energy imports. The motivation is quite straightforward. In 2021, Russian oil and gas exports constituted 49% of Russian goods exports or 14 % of Russian GDP, and the Western world (in particular, the European Union) is the main recipient of these exports. Banning Russian oil and gas export would, thus, lead to heavy pressure on the Russian economy.
The discussion has been quite heated. The US actually implemented a ban on Russian oil and gas in early March 2022, but this gesture has been largely seen as relatively symbolic, as the US dependency on Russian energy imports is quite limited. EU politicians have voiced different opinions about the feasibility of Russian energy sanctions. While some advocate an immediate ban, others argue for a more gradual decrease in imports or even for continuing imports effectively in a business-as-usual fashion. While the EC has announced plans to cut down the consumption of Russian gas by two-thirds in 2022 and mentioned the implementation of “some form of oil embargo” as part of their 6th sanction package, there is still no consensus across the EU. Sanctions on Russian oil and gas imports have not been implemented in the EU by the time of writing this brief.
The main reason for this hesitation is the extent to which Russia remains the main energy supplier. In 2020, 39% of gas and 36% of oil and oil products in the EU were imported from Russia, and the feasibility and consequences of replacing these with alternative supplies are debatable. Since the beginning of the war academics, international organizations and consultancies have offered a variety of analytical materials on the feasibility and implications of such energy sanctions (see e.g., Bachmann et al. 2022. Chepeliev et al, 2022, Fulwood et al., 2022, Guriev and Itskhoki, 2022, Hilgenstock and Ribakova, 2022, IEA, 2022, RYSTAD 2002a,b, Stehn, 2022 to name just a few).
This brief contributes to these estimates by discussing how a Russian oil and gas ban could affect the energy import bill across individual EU countries. We start by providing details on the EU’s dependency on Russian oil and gas imports. We then proceed to access the scope of the costs that a ban on Russian energy could imply for the EU energy sector. We conclude with a discussion about the feasibility of political agreement on such sanctions.
Import Dependency and Dependency on Russian Energy Across the EU
The two primary channels through which a Russian energy ban would affect the vulnerability of an EU country are the dependency on Russian oil and gas, and the overall energy import dependency. The former matters since a ban would imply an immediate necessity to replace missing volumes of energy. This would lead to an increase in energy prices widely across markets, thereby signifying the importance of the latter channel, the overall import dependency.
Figures 1 and 2 depict the dependency on Russian oil and gas across the EU member states. In Figure 1, the dependency is measured as a ratio of Russian energy imports to the gross available energy for each energy type separately – crude oil, oil and oil products, and natural gas. However, this measure may not reflect the importance of the respective energy type in a country’s energy portfolio. For example, in Finland, Russian gas imports constitute 67% of gross available natural gas. However, natural gas is less than 7% of the country’s energy mix, thus the overall effect of Russian gas on the Finnish energy sector and economy is rather limited. To account for this, Figure 2 offers an overview of the contribution of Russian energy imports to the cumulative energy portfolio across the EU.
Both figures show that there is a large variation both in terms of the contribution of individual energy types and in terms of overall dependency on Russian fuels. For example, the latter is almost negligible for Cyprus and well over 50% for Lithuania (however, Figure 2 accounts for re-exports and, thus, overestimates the role of Russian energy imports for Lithuanian domestic available energy in 2020.
Figure 1. Share of Russian energy imports in gross available energy, by fuel, 2020.
Figure 2. Share of Russian energy imports in total gross available energy, 2020. Source: Eurostat
While the above data summarizes the EU dependency on Russian energy imports in volume terms, it is also useful to have a sense of the costs of this dependency. As we are not aware of any source that has accurate data on the value of imports across the EU states, we construct a back-of-the-envelope assessment of the costs of Russian energy imports to the EU in 2021 using the available trade data for 2021 and the allocation of imports across the EU Member States for 2020 (see Appendix 1 for more details). Admittedly, these estimates only account for the differences in prices of energy imports from Russia vs. other suppliers; it does not capture e.g., the difference in prices of Russian gas across the Member States. Still, they offer useful insight into the scope of these expenses, in levels (Figure 3) and the share of GDP (Figure 4).
The results suggest that, while the expenses are quite sizable – e.g., the total value of Russian fossil energy imports to the EU in 2021 exceeds 110 bln EUR, – they correspond to around 0.7% of European GDP. Again, there is variation across the Member States, but in most cases – effectively all cases that do not account for re-export – the share of Russian energy imports is below 2% of GDP.
Figure 3. Value of Russian fossil energy imports, bln EUR, 2021.
Figure 4. Share of oil, oil products and gas imports in GDP, 2021.
Figure 4 also touches upon the second source of vulnerability towards a ban on Russian energy, mentioned at the beginning of this section. It depicts not only the value of Russian oil and gas imports as a percent of GDP but the overall dependency on imports of oil and gas as a share of GDP. The larger this dependency is, the bigger is the impact of an increase in energy prices for a country. Figure 4 not only confirms the abovementioned variation across the Member States but also shows that some countries with little-to-moderate direct dependency on Russian oil and gas – e.g., Portugal or Spain, – are still likely to experience a sizable negative shock to their energy expenses due to the market price increase.
Importantly, these figures give only a very rough representation of the potential damage that a ban on Russian energy imports may cause to the EU economies. Two EU Member States with a comparable dependency could react to the shortage of Russian gas in very different ways, depending on a variety of other factors – the extent and scalability of domestic production, diversification of their remaining energy portfolio in terms of energy suppliers and types of oil the economy relies on (e.g., light vs. heavy), energy infrastructure (e.g., LNG regasification facilities or storage), consumption structure, etc. Le Coq and Paltseva (2009, 2012) discuss in detail some of these factors, and the possibilities to account for them. However, for the sake of simplicity, in this brief we focus on the (volume- and value-based) measures of dependency.
Potential Costs of Russian Energy Import Ban
In this section, we discuss the potential implications of banning imports of Russian oil and gas on the costs of fossil energy imports in the EU. We offer a few historical parallels in order to assess the potential scope of the price reaction to such a ban. Furthermore, we proceed to provide estimates of the costs of oil and gas imports across the EU Member States, would such sanctions be implemented.
Oil Imports Ban
We start with a potential ban on Russian oil and oil product imports. To put things in perspective, it might be useful to present some numbers. According to the IEA, Russia recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil and oil products exporter. In December 2021, global Russian crude and oil product exports constituted 7.8 million barrels per day (mb/d), with exports of crude oil and condensate at 5 mb/d. Out of the total 7.8 mb/d, exports to OECD countries constituted 5.6 mb/d, with crude oil exports amounting to 3.9 mb/d. Assuming that the size of the global oil market in 2021 returns to its pre-pandemic 2019 level (the actual data for 2021 global oil consumption is not available yet), Russian crude oil exports to the OECD constitute 8.6% of global crude exports. The corresponding figure for oil products is 6.8% (BP, 2021).
So, what would happen if the developed world – which for the purpose of this analysis we proxy by OECD – bans Russian oil exports? In the recent public discussion, many voices have compared this potential development to the 1973 oil crisis. This crisis was initiated by OAPEC’s – the Arab members of OPEC, – oil embargo on the US in response to their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The OAPEC, the biggest group of oil exporters at the time, completely banned oil exports to the US (and a number of other western countries), and also introduced production restraints that affected the global oil market. The (WTI) oil price during this episode went up by a factor of three (see, e.g, Baumeister and Kilian, 2016).
However, a few important features are likely to differ between the oil crisis of 1973 and the potential impact of the Russian imports ban. First, the net loss of oil supplies during the Arab embargo was around 4.4 mb/d, which at that point constituted around 14% of traded oil (Yergin, 1992). Recall that Russian supplies to OECD are around half of this share. Moreover, it is likely that the ban would not lead to a complete withdrawal of these amounts from the market, but rather to a partial rerouting of Russian oil to Asia and, consequently, a readjustment of world oil trade flows. Second, Yergin (1992) points out that, at the time of the 1973 oil crisis, oil consumption was growing at 7.5% per year, which exacerbated the impact of the embargo. In contrast, the current assessments of oil demand growth are at around 2% per year (IEA, 2022). Third, the energy portfolios are much more diversified now than in 1973, with gas and renewables playing a more substantial role. In the case of an isolated oil imports ban (not extending to gas imports), this would argue in favor of a more moderate price impact. Finally, the oil embargo of 1973 was a never-seen-before episode in the history of the oil market. The uncertainty about future developments has likely contributed to the oil price increase. While there is substantial uncertainty associated with the impact of a Russian oil imports ban, it is arguably lower than in 1973. Based on these considerations, a three-fold oil price increase in the case of a Russian oil export ban seems highly unlikely.
As a possible lower bound of the price impact, one can consider a much more recent price shock brought about by drone attacks on the oil processing facilities Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia in 2019. In the initial assessment of the damage, Saudi Arabian authorities stated that the attack decreased the national oil production by 5.7 mb/d – which is more than the total of Russian oil exports to OECD. As a reaction, the intraday oil price went up by 20 %, and the daily oil price by 12%. In two weeks, production and export capacity was almost back to normal and the price returned to pre-shock levels.
Notice that the scale of the daily shortage in this episode exceeds the likely shortage under the Russian imports ban. However, a moderate price reaction, in this case, was clearly driven by expectations for the temporary nature of the shortage, as the damage was to be repaired in a matter of a few weeks, if not days. In comparison, the Russian oil ban is likely to last much longer. In this way, a price increase of 12%, or even 20%, would be an underestimation of the effect of a Russian oil imports ban.
While the above discussion suggests some bounds for the possible price effects of a Russian oil ban, the uncertainty around such price developments is very high. Figure 5 shows the cost estimates of oil and oil products imports to the EU for two potential price levels – $120/b, and $180/b. Each price would roughly correspond to an increase of 33%, and 100%, respectively, relative to the pre-invasion price of $90/b. In the estimation, we simplistically assume that the price of oil products increases by the same amount as the price of crude oil. We also assume that the missing Russian oil can be replaced by alternatives, such that oil consumption does not change compared to the 2021 level for the lower price scenario and that it decreases by 2% for the high-cost scenario due to the demand adjustments.
Figure 5. Estimated effect of Russian oil ban on oil and gas imports in 2022: value of oil and oil products imports, EUR bln (left axis), and oil import expenses relative to 2021 level (right axis).
The estimates suggest that the total oil and oil products import costs for the EU would be just above EUR 640 bln for the $120/b price level and EUR 940 bln for the $180/b price level. Furthermore, the costs across the EU Member States would vary greatly depending on the size of the economy and its exposure to oil imports.
This shows that – provided that the Russian oil will be fully replaced but at a higher price – the expected cost of this is in the range of 1.7-1.9 times the 2021 expenses at 120$/b, and 2.5-2.8 times that if the price would be 180$/b. While there is some variation across Member States, mostly driven by the removal of the somewhat cheaper Russian oil from the consumption basket, it is rather limited. Figure 5 also demonstrates that the ban on Russian oil imports is going to affect not only countries that directly depend on Russian oil but also countries with large oil and oil products imports due to the market price effects.
Gas Imports Ban
Now we proceed to discuss the costs of banning Russian gas imports into the EU. While LNG has increased the fungibility of the natural gas market, it remains sizably segmented. Therefore, we concentrate on the effect on the European market.
Russian gas constituted around 39% of the EU gas consumption volumes in 2020, and just below 30% in 2021 due to restricted supply during the second half of the year (McWilliams, Sgaravatti and Zachmann, 2021). It is currently a common understanding that fully substituting 155 Bcm of Russian gas imports in 2021 with imports from other pipeline suppliers, LNG, storage, and increasing domestic production is not feasible in 2022. Different sources have given different estimates on the extent of the resulting shortage, see e.g. Table 1.
Table 1. Alternatives to replace EU imports of Russian natural gas
As shown in Table 1, the net missing gas consumption ranges between 12% and 22% across different scenarios. As there are no historical episodes in the gas market to which such a development can be compared, it is difficult to assess the potential price reaction. One rough comparison can be made based on the oil market situation during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 discussed above. Then, the net loss of oil constituted about 9% of the oil consumption in “the free world” (Yergin, 1982), even lower than the most optimistic prognosis in Table 1. However, 33 Mcb of Russian gas (or 6% of 2021 the EU’s gas consumption) has already been imported to the EU since the beginning of 2022, making the potential gas shortage quite comparable to the oil shortage of 1973. Subject to all differences between the two shocks, one can, perhaps, still argue that the gas price increase following a ban on Russian gas imports should not exceed three-fold from before the invasion.
It is important to stress here that the EU gas market situation in the case of the Russian gas embargo would be principally different from the oil market one. Due to supply shortage not coverable by the alternative gas sources, a gas embargo would lead not only to a stronger price increase than in the case of oil, but also to significant downward demand adjustments, rationing and, perhaps, even price controls. (This, again, parallels the developments during the 1973 oil crisis). The negative effect of such rationing is not accounted for by the import bill. On the contrary, a shortage of supply would imply lower gas import volumes, biasing the impact on the gas import bill downward. In this way, an import bill reaction to sanctions in the case of natural gas may more strongly underestimate the overall impact on the economy than in the case of oil.
While the above argument suggests a higher price increase in the case of a gas embargo in comparison to an oil ban, there is still a lot of uncertainty in forecasting the gas price. Figure 6 depicts the estimates for the natural gas cost across the EU for two potential price levels – EUR 160/Mwh, and EUR 240/Mwh, a two- and three-fold increase relative to the pre-invasion price level of EUR 80/Mwh. Both estimates assume a (moderate) 8% decrease in the demand reflecting the abovementioned supply shortage and demand adjustments. We assume that the shortage is affecting both the importers of Russian gas and those who use other suppliers due to the common gas market in the EU and the use of reverse flow technology – as was the case for Poland which was denied Russian gas on April 27th, 2022 due to not paying for it in Rubles (see Appendix 1 for a discussion of implications of this assumption).
Not surprisingly, the gas import costs increase drastically in comparison to 2021. The total figures for the EU would be just below EUR 680 bln in the two-fold price increase scenario, and exceed 1 trn EUR in the case of a three-fold increase, in contrast to EUR 185 bln in 2021. Again, the largest economies bear the highest costs in absolute value.
When it comes to the relative increase in gas import value, two further observations follow from Figure 6. First, there is a huge variation in the increase in the value of gas imports across the Member States, from no effect in Cyprus which does not import natural gas, to 7.7 times in the case of a price doubling and 11.5 times in the case of a price tripling. Again, this variation originates from the necessity to replace cheaper Russian gas with more expensive gas sources, and the effect is much stronger than for oil. However, just like in the oil case, the states not directly importing Russian gas will still experience a huge negative shock from such a price hike. (Recall also, that the variation of the impact across the Member States is likely underestimated here, as the gas bill does not account for potential rationing which may differentially impact the importers of Russian gas).
Second, the increase in the value of gas imports exceeds the scale of the price increase even for the least affected Member States (excluding Cyprus). This is due to the unprecedented gas price increase during the EU gas crisis that took place between late 2021 and the beginning of 2022. Due to this increase, the pre-invasion gas price in February 2022 was 60% higher than the average gas price in 2021.
Figure 6. Estimated effect of Russian natural gas ban on gas imports in 2022: value of gas imports, EUR bln (left axis), and gas import expenses relative to 2021 level (right axis).
The above estimates suggest that a ban on Russian oil and gas imports is going to be costly for the EU. While uncertainty is very high concerning the possible energy price increase following such a ban, historical parallels together with the market characteristics suggest that both the price increase and the rise in the value of imports are going to be stronger for natural gas. The resulting increase in the EU-wide import values relative to 2021 ranges from 1.8 to 2.6 times for the considered oil scenarios, and from 3.7 to 5.5 times for the natural gas scenarios.
Unsurprisingly, the most sizable import costs will be faced by the larger EU Member States, as well as those most dependent on oil and gas imports. However, all EU countries are going to be affected due to the market price increase. While the relative rise in the import costs of oil and oil products will be fairly uniformly met across the EU states, the increase in the costs of gas exports will vary greatly, with the largest relative losses faced by the EU states that are currently more exposed to Russian gas imports.
The above figures provide a rough assessment of the potential costs of a Russian fossil fuels ban. The approach does not take into account substitutability between different fuels and resulting cross-effects on prices, which implies that the costs could be both under- and overestimated. It has a very limited and simplistic take on the demand reaction to a price increase, which again may lead to either over- or underestimation of the effect. Neither does it account for the consequences of such price increases on the costs of electricity and implications for the non-energy sector within the economies. The latter may, again, be differentially affected depending on the industrial composition and their relative energy intensity. Another factor to consider is the interconnectivity between the EU economies – for example, an increase in Germany’s energy bill is likely to have a large impact on the entire EU. Moreover, the use of the import bill as a proxy for the overall effect on the economy may have further limitations in the case of supply shortage and rationing. To provide a more precise estimate of the impact of such a ban on the entire economy, for instance on GDP, one would require an extensive and sophisticated model along the lines of the CGE approach, relying on large amounts of data (Bachmann et al. (2022) provide an excellent example of such a study of the effect on Germany). This, however, is beyond the scope of the current assessment.
Still, even this relatively simplistic assessment of import costs of a Russian energy ban offers sufficient food for thought for the discussion of the scale of damage across the EU Member States and the feasibility of oil and gas sanctions. For example, the assessment suggests that an oil ban is likely to yield relative parity across the Member States in terms of the increase in the 2022 oil import bill as compared to the 2021 level. This would imply that, were the EU to decide on a gradual sanctioning of Russian oil and gas, it would be easier to reach an EU-wide agreement on oil sanctions. In turn, moving away from Russian gas – due to either the decision to ban gas imports or retaliation from Russia in response to oil sanctions, -implies very uneven import cost exposure. Thus, to face the challenge of replacing Russian gas imports, the EU would likely need to implement some kind of energy solidarity mechanism.
- Baumeister, C., & Lutz Kilian. (2016). “Forty Years of Oil Price Fluctuations: Why the Price of Oil May Still Surprise Us.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30 (1): 139-60.
- Bachmann, R., D., Baqaee, C., Bayer, M., Kuhn, B., Moll, A., Peichl, K., Pittel & M. Schularick. (2022). “What if? The Economic Effects for Germany of a Stop of Energy Imports from Russia”, ECONtribute Policy Brief 28/2022.
- BP. (2021). Statistical Review of World Energy
- Chepeliev, M., T. Hertel and D. van der Mensbrugghe. (2022). “Cutting Russia’s fossil exports: Short-term pain for long-term gain”, VoxEU.org, 9 March.
- Fulwood, M., Sharples J., & J. Henderson. (2022). ”Ukraine Invasion: What This Means for the European Gas Market”, The Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, March
- Guriev, S. & O. Itskhoki. (2022). “The Economic Rationale for Oil and Gas Embargo on Putin’s Regime”.
- IEA. (2022). “A 10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union’s Reliance on Russian Natural Gas”.
- Hilgenstock, B. & E. Ribakova. (2022). “Macro Notes – Russia Sanctions: A Possible Energy Embargo”, Institute of International Finance
- Le Coq, C. & E. Paltseva. (2009). “Measuring the security of external energy supply in the European Union”, Energy Policy 37: 4474-4481.
- Le Coq, C. & E. Paltseva. (2012). “Assessing Gas Transit Risks: Russia vs. the EU”, Energy Policy, 4: 642-650.
- McWilliams, B., Sgaravatti G., Tagliapietra S., & Zachmann G. (2022). “Can Europe Survive Painlessly without Russian Gas?”, Bruegel, 27 February.
- McWilliams, B., Sgaravatti G., & Zachmann G. (2021). “European Natural Gas Imports”, Bruegel Datasets
- Rystad Energy. (2022a). “Energy Impact Report, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, public version”, March 2
- Rystad Energy. (2022b). “Energy Impact Report, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, public version”, March 21
- Stehn, S. J., Ball, S., Durre, A., Radde, S., Schnittker, C., Taddei, F. & Quadr, I. (2022). “The Impact of Gas Shortages on the European Economy”, Goldman Sachs, March
- Y. Daniel. (1992). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
In this policy brief we address the recently revived idea of a common energy policy for the EU – an idea of the EU acting as a whole when dealing with energy security issues. We focus on a particular mechanism for such a common policy – the substantial “buyer power” of the EU in the natural gas market. We start by relating the “buyer power” mechanism to the current context of the EU energy markets. We then discuss the substitutability between “buyer power” and alternative energy security tools available to the EU. In particular, we argue that two main energy security tools – the diversification of the gas sources and the liberalization of the internal gas market – may counteract such buyer power, either by decreasing the leverage over the gas supplier(s) or by undermining coordination. Thereby, investing both into diversification, market liberalization and energy policy coordination may be inefficiently costly. These trade-offs are often overlooked in the discussion of EU energy policy.
The security of energy supply has been part of the European political agenda for more than half a century – at least, since the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952. However, the Community’s view on the energy security policy and its desirable tools has been changing over time. In the early decades of European integration energy security issues were predominantly seen as belonging to the national competence level. Due to substantial variation in the energy portfolios and energy needs among the Member States, attempts to create a common energy policy were largely unsuccessful. The first large move towards a common energy policy came in the mid-1980s with the idea of developing a common internal energy market. The focus was on liberalization, privatization and integration of the internal markets, with an objective of achieving more competitive prices, improving infrastructure, and facilitating cooperation in case of energy supply shocks. In particular, the internal market was seen as a tool to (partially) overcome the disparity in the energy risk exposure among the Member States. A considerable effort was put in this direction and a certain progress was accomplished.
The second half of 2000s has been characterized by a number of gas crises between one of the largest EU gas suppliers, Russia and the transit countries – Ukraine (in 2006, 2007 and 2009) and Belarus (in 2004 and 2010). These crises repeatedly caused reduction, and sometimes even complete halts, of Russian gas flows to the EU. As a result, the focus of the EU energy policy shifted towards measures ensuring the security of external energy supply. The policy debate has been stressing the dependency of the EU on large fuel suppliers, such as Russia in case of gas, and the need to lower this dependency. Suggested remedies included diversification of gas sources (in particular, away from Russian gas – such as construction of Nabucco pipeline or introduction of new LNG terminals), strengthening of the internal market, and more efficient energy use. The debate was further heated by the construction (and late 2011 launch) of the Nord Stream pipeline, which, according to popular opinion, would further increase the EU dependence on Russia.
In what follows, we address this external energy policy debate. We argue that the dependence per se is not necessarily dangerous for the EU and can be counteracted with due coordination between the Member States. Further, we argue that in dealing with large gas suppliers, there is certain substitutability between such coordination and other proposed energy policy measures, such as diversification of the energy routes or further market liberalization. Thereby, the EU would be better off by carefully choosing an appropriate mix of energy policy tools, rather than by getting all of them at once.
Indeed, the dependency of the EU on Russian natural gas is large. The share of Russian gas in the total EU gas consumption is around 20%,1 and for the group of EU Member States importing gas from Russia this share constitutes around one third.1 Furthermore, in a number of EU Member States – such as Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Slovakia – the share of Russian gas in total consumption is above 80%.3
However, it is important to remember that the dependency is mutual. The current share of gas exports to the EU of total Russian gas exports is around 55%,1 and these gas exports constitute around one fifth7 of Russian federal budget revenues. These observations suggests that the EU as a whole would also possess a substantial market power in the gas trade between Russia and the EU, and this market power can be exercised to achieve certain concessions.
More precisely, this situation could be viewed through a prism of what the economic literature refers to as “buyer power”. Inderst and Shaffer (2008) identify buyer power as “the ability of buyers (i.e., downstream firms) to obtain advantageous terms of trade from their suppliers (i.e., upstream firms)”.5 The notion of buyer power is typically used in the context of vertical trade relationship between a small number of large sellers and a few large buyers. As there are only a few agents, each with considerable market power, the outcome of such trade would typically be determined through some kind of bargaining procedure, rather than via a market mechanism. In such bargaining, the extent of buyer power depends on the seller’s outside option, or, in other words, on the ease for the seller to cope with a loss of a large part of its market.
Consider for example a single seller serving a few buyers. Intuitively, were there a disagreement between the seller and a small buyer, it should be relatively easy for the seller to reallocate the freed-up capacity to the remaining buyers, making each of them consume just a little bit more of a product. However, the larger is the freed-up capacity of the seller in case of a disagreement, the more difficult it is for the seller to reallocate this capacity to the rest of the market. Moreover, allocating this relatively large capacity to the remaining buyers is likely to suppress the price and lower the monopoly profits of the seller. Inderst and Wey (2007) show that, under some relatively standard modeling requirements, “the supplier’s loss from a disagreement increases more than proportionally with the size of the respective buyer”.6 In other words, an increase in the size of the buyer undermines the seller’s outside option, thereby weakening the seller’s bargaining position and allowing the buyer to negotiate a preferential treatment.
It is relatively straight-forward to see the parallels between this argument and the gas trade relation between the EU and Russia. In a sense, the buyer power theory provides an economic (rather than political) rational for the September 2011 European Commission proposal to coordinate the external energy policy in order to “exercise the combined weight of the EU in external energy relations”.2 At the same time, the large buyer mechanism also allows us to see more clearly, why such a coordination policy may come into conflict with the other proposed energy policy tools.
In particular, consider the diversification of the gas supplies across producers. The argument for the diversification is that it decreases the dependency on each particular supplier, thereby lowering the exposure to the idiosyncratic risks of these suppliers. However, lower volumes of gas imports from such suppliers imply a loss of the EU’s buyer power vis-a-vis these suppliers. This would worsen the terms of the respective gas trade deals or undermine the stability of the supply. Of course, this argument suggests by no means that a diversification strategy is useless or harmful for the EU energy security; however, one would need to account for the relative importance of lower dependency vs. lower buyer power in making the diversification decisions. In other words, the EU can achieve the same level of gas supply stability by investing either into further diversification of gas supply or into better coordination among the members. Trying to achieve both objectives at the same time may result in efficiency loss, at least from the gas supply security perspective. Importantly, this tradeoff has been largely overlooked in the discussion of the EU energy policy.
Another energy policy objective pursued by the EU in the last decades is the creation of an integrated and deregulated internal gas market. Again, the relationship between this energy policy objective and the buyer power is two-fold. On one hand, better integration of internal gas markets would help to even out the disparities in the gas supply risk exposure across the Member States, thereby facilitating cooperation and lessening the tensions between the energy security interests on the national vs. community-wide level. On the other hand, gas market liberalization and a push towards more competitive gas trade environment within the EU may come into conflict with the supranational coordination of buyer power. Once large state-run gas purchasing actors are dissolved and replaced by multiple private, not necessarily domestic, and possibly small market participants, it might be much more difficult, if at all possible, to achieve coordination in bargaining with the gas supplying side. As Finon and Locatelli (2007) argue, “if the major gas buyers are weakened in the name of the principles of short-term competition, their bargaining power and their financial capacity to handle large import operations would be reduced”.4 Moreover, there is a clear conceptual contradiction between coordination among gas buyers and the competitiveness principles of the European gas market. Again, this tradeoff needs to be taken into account in the common energy policy design.
Finally, it is important to mention that the “large buyer” argument is less relevant for the EU markets for other fuels, such as oil, liquefied natural gas, or coal. The key difference comes from the inherent structure of the gas market, as compared to the one of oil, coal, etc. Indeed, the EU imports most of its natural gas via pipelines, which makes it difficult for both sides of the deal to switch to an alternative partner. In other words, the natural gas market serving the EU is effectively a local market. Instead, fuels like oil, liquefied natural gas, or coal are traded more globally, and are much more fungible (that is, it is much easier to find an alternative supplier or a consumer). Global markets imply smaller market shares of the EU (indeed, the EU consumes only about 16 %1 of the world oil). This, coupled with better fungibility of oil, LNG, etc. undermines the power of the large buyer argument for other fuels.
To sum up, the EU has a noticeable potential for improving its position in the gas trade deals and enhancing the stability of its gas supplies. This potential comes from the large buyer power possessed by the EU in the gas market, and is in line with the long considered and recently revived idea of “one voice” common energy policy. At the same time, the extent to which the buyer power can be used as an energy policy tool may be limited by the other policy instruments, such as diversification of gas supplies, a shift towards LNG or alternative fuels, or internal market liberalization. This has to be taken into account in choosing the optimal energy security policy mix.
- BP, 2011, Statistical review of the world energy
- European Commission, September 2011, Speaking with one voice – the key to securing our energy interests abroad, press release
- Finon D., Locatelli, C., 2007. Russian and European gas interdependence. Can market forces balance out geopolitics?, LEPII – EPE working paper #41
- Inderst, R., Shaffer, G., 2008. The Role of Buyer Power in Merger Control, chapter prepared for the ABA Antitrust Section Handbook, Issues in Competition Law
- Inderst, R., Wey, C., 2007, Buyer Power and Supplier Incentives, European Economic Review, 51, pp. 647–667
- Our own calculations based on Ross Business Consulting data from February 06, 2012 and Russian Federation Federal Law N 357 about Federal budget for 2011