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Europe braces for gas 'nightmare' as pipeline from Russia shuts off

Pipes at the landfall facilities of the 'Nord Stream 1' gas pipeline are pictured in Lubmin, Germany, March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke (Hannibal Hanschke / reuters)

BERLIN - The main natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany shut down for scheduled maintenance Monday, raising concerns that Moscow could use the repairs as a pretext for a longer shutdown as it wields energy supplies as leverage in the Ukraine war.

European ministers warned that it was unclear whether Moscow would turn the taps on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline back on after the 10 days of scheduled work. Germany's economy minister, Robert Habeck, said Berlin was concerned about a "nightmare scenario" this winter if Russia decides against doing so.

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"Everything is possible, everything can happen," he told Deutschlandfunk radio on Sunday. "We have to prepare for the worst."

Speaking at a business conference in southern France, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire went further, saying that a total cutoff was "the most likely scenario." He said that "it would be totally irresponsible to ignore this scenario."

The Nord Stream 1 pipeline pumps about 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany each year. From there, it is also distributed to other countries in Europe. Virtually the entire European Union has said that weaning itself off Russian gas should be a priority, but several member countries remain heavily reliant on Moscow.

Video: Why high gas prices may be here to stay

Despite scrambling to diversify its supply since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Germany is still reliant on Russia for about 35% of its supplies, while France gets 17% of its gas from Russia.

As it tries to build gas reserves before the winter, when demand is at its highest for heating in homes, the German government has urged consumers to conserve energy by taking cooler showers and using less air conditioning. Some large residential landlords have gone further, limiting overnight heating and hot water for tenants.

Habeck, who has said he's taking shorter showers, has laid out an emergency plan in the event of a further crunch on supplies, which would involve the government intervening in the energy market.

At Berlin's urging, Canada agreed over the weekend to return a turbine for the Nord Stream 1 to Germany, despite Ukrainian objections. The equipment has been stranded in Montreal, where it underwent repairs, because of Canadian sanctions on Russia.

Germany had feared that if the turbine was not returned in time for the scheduled maintenance, Russia could use that as an excuse not to turn the gas back on. Last month, Russia cut flows to 40% of the pipeline's total capacity, citing delays in the return of equipment for service, a move Western nations called "energy blackmail."

The Ukrainian government on Sunday criticized Canada's decision to return the turbine, saying it would embolden Moscow to "continue to use energy as a tool of hybrid warfare against Europe."

Ukrainian officials have argued that there is no technical basis for Russia's demand that the turbine be returned because the pipeline can operate without it. Moscow, they say, is choosing to weaponize gas flow in retaliation for sanctions.

"This dangerous precedent violates international solidarity, goes against the principle of the rule of law and will have only one consequence: it will strengthen Moscow's sense of impunity," Ukraine's foreign and energy ministries said in a statement.

Since Russia's full-scale invasion in February, Ottawa has penalized more than 1,000 people and entities, including Russia's oil and gas sector and its manufacturing industry.

But the tussle over the turbine has Canada, home to the world's second-largest Ukrainian diaspora, caught between two allies: Germany, a NATO partner, and Ukraine.

Alexandra Chyczij, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, characterized the decision as "bowing to Russian blackmail," while Canada's opposition Conservative Party said it would damage the country's "standing on the world stage."

The State Department, however, said it supported Ottawa's decision.

"In the short term, the turbine will allow Germany and other European countries to replenish their gas reserves, increasing their energy security and resiliency and countering Russia's efforts to weaponize energy," spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's natural resources minister, said Saturday that the permit to return the turbine is "time-limited and revocable."

"Absent a necessary supply of natural gas, the German economy will suffer very significant hardship," he said, "and Germans themselves will be at risk of being unable to heat their homes as winter approaches."

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The Washington Post's Kendra Nichols contributed to this report.

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