This is how Germany has become independent from Russian oil since the beginning of the war | International
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In Germany there is practically only one way for Russian oil to enter, an oil pipeline ironically called Friendship (Druzhba, in Russian) that transports crude oil 4,000 kilometers from the fields of Siberia to the heart of the European Union. Its ramifications extend through the Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria, making up one of the largest oil pipelines in the world, by capacity and length. One of these pipelines ends up in Germany, a few kilometers from the Polish border, in a gigantic Soviet-era refinery that feeds nine out of ten cars circulating in eastern Germany, including the capital, Berlin.
The Druzhba still injects crude into the Schwedt refinery, but it is only a matter of time before it stops. In a few months Germany will not import a single barrel of Russian oil. From being one of the most reluctant capitals to the energy embargoes against Russia as punishment for the invasion of Ukraine, Berlin has come to lead the European front that wants to ban the import of crude oil. The turn surprised his partners. Almost overnight, Germany stopped dragging its feet and announced that getting rid of oil was no longer a debacle for its economy. Germany’s dependence on Russian crude has gone from 35% before the war, which began in late February, to just 12%.
How have you managed it in just over two months? Oil is the most traded commodity in the world, recalls Andreas Goldthau, an energy policy expert at the University of Erfurt. Barrels of crude oil change hands dozens of times before physically arriving where they are going to be refined. “In this global oil market, molecules have no flag; Volumes are not bought from countries, but from companies”, he adds over the phone, and it is relatively easy to change suppliers when there are no long-term contracts involved. The amounts that were previously bought from Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, have been replaced by those from Norwegian, Nigerian or Middle Eastern companies.
The great advantage of crude oil and petroleum products “is that they can arrive in many ways,” says Goldthau. By sea, in tankers, but also in road tankers, as well as through pipelines. Therein lies the big difference with respect to gas, the next objective of Olaf Scholz’s Executive. Robert Habeck, its Minister of the Economy and Climate, calculated a few weeks ago that dispensing with Russian gas will not be possible until mid-2024. Most of what currently arrives does so by pipeline. The German governments of the last two decades entrusted everything to Moscow’s hydrocarbons and did not build alternative infrastructures. That is why the country does not have a single regasification terminal to be able to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) by sea. In Spain, by way of comparison, six work.
The port of Gdansk, in Poland, has become the main gateway for the oil consumed by Germany. The Leuna refinery, also in the east of the country and which, like Schwedt, was fed by the Druzhba pipeline, has already dispensed with half of Russian crude, says a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Economy and Climate. Its operator, the French Total Energies, stopped buying Russian hydrocarbons on the daily market two days before the invasion began. Although it is still modifying long-term contracts, the Government believes “in a very short time” it will have achieved independence from Russian raw materials.
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In Schwedt it will not be so easy. Its majority owner is Rosneft and as such it has no interest in starting to refine oil other than Russian. From a technical point of view, the refinery could work with crude of other origins imported from the ports of Gdansk and Rostock, also on the Baltic coast. “But we do not contemplate that they will voluntarily end the supply relationship with Russia,” the ministry acknowledges to EL PAÍS. Schwedt produces gasoline and diesel for vehicles, heating oil and the kerosene that refuels planes at Berlin airport. A stop in its activity, or even a reduction, threatens to cause bottlenecks and, ultimately, the dreaded rationing.
“A drop in Schwedt production would have consequences for the economy of the Berlin and Brandenburg region and would impact prices,” says Goldthau. But the government, she adds, is now willing to take it on. The possibility of taking control of the refinery is even being considered, as it did last month with the German subsidiary of the Russian state gas company Gazprom. Expropriation would be the last resort, but Minister Habeck has not ruled it out: the law that allows the state to take the assets of companies critical to the security of energy supply has just been approved and could come into force this month.
With Germany’s yes, the European Commission has been able to put on the table the embargo on Russian oil in response to the gas supply cuts to Poland and Bulgaria ordered by the Kremlin. But there are other countries, more dependent or with less capacity or willingness to disengage from oil, that are reluctant. Negotiations in Brussels to overcome resistance from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic continue this weekend.
One of the proposals that would make it possible to maintain the unity that the EU has shown so far in designing the sanctions packages against Putin would be to give them more time than the rest, something that Berlin welcomes. Germany has made “a lot of progress” in finding alternatives to Russian hydrocarbons, Habeck said last Monday, but acknowledged that “other countries might need more time.” On average, the 27 imported 25% of Russia’s oil last year, but there are big differences between states. In the case of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Finland the percentage exceeded 75%.
Habeck wanted to warn that this second energy embargo is not going to come cheap to the EU. “We are going to harm ourselves, that is clear,” he said. In Berlin, it is taken for granted that prices will rise, but the impact is considered manageable and part of the sacrifices that must be made to support Ukraine. The ban on Russian crude is intended to hit where it hurts the most, in the copious profits with which Russian President Vladimir Putin finances the war. With the sale of crude oil to the EU, almost 48,000 million euros entered last year, 75,000 if oil derivatives are also counted.
Gas is already in the sights of Berlin. It will be the next step. Habeck traveled to Qatar a few weeks ago in search of possible suppliers and has just signed the first contracts to build LNG terminals without delay. The first, a floating infrastructure, could be ready by the end of the year.
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