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European natural gas market proves resilience in face of unplanned outages

Highlights


Price spikes incentivized market-driven pull on gas supplies

Market able to work as intended to avert significant disruption

Reminder of system fragility when hit by concurrent incidents

The series of unconnected events Tuesday that spooked European gas markets was a good test of how resilient Europe's natural gas system can be when faced with a torrent of unexpected outages.

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At one point early in the day -- with much of Europe suffering the first real cold snap of the winter -- five separate incidents had traders scrambling to cover their positions as prices began to spike on markets across the continent.

Italian within-day and day-ahead prices surged to as much as Eur80/MWh after an explosion at the key Austrian gas hub of Baumgarten led to the suspension of Russian gas supplies to Italy.

And in the UK, prices temporarily jumped 40% to 92 p/th (Eur35.70/MWh) due to the full shutdown of gas production at the major Elgin-Franklin and Britannia field areas in the UK North Sea, a power failure at Norway's giant Troll field and some short-lived technical problems with the BBL gas link between the Netherlands and the UK.

Adding to the market tightness was also news that France's EDF had delayed the return of five nuclear reactors, meaning no let-up for gas demand for power generation in France.


MARKET BALANCE


Certainly this was no ordinary winter's day in Europe and the gas price rises and extreme price volatility were clear evidence of that.

But despite the Italian government declaring its gas market had entered "emergency level" -- allowing for the release of Italy's substantial strategic gas reserves -- there were no reports of any industrial customers having their supply reduced.

Italy was able to meet its demand through an increase in storage withdrawals, more gas imports from Algeria and a step-up in supplies from northwest Europe via Passo Gries.

Storage step up, linepack deficit declines as Russian gas flows resume

As it turned out, Baumgarten escaped relatively unscathed from the fatal blast, allowing for transit to resume some 12 hours after the explosion and Italian gas prices to return back close to pre-incident levels.

In the UK, the system was also very quickly balanced as the within-day price spike incentivized significant withdrawals from the UK's multiple small, medium-range storage facilities and from the well-stocked LNG tanks at Dragon, Isle of Grain and South Hook.

By the end of the day, the NBP day-ahead gas price was assessed Tuesday only slightly higher at 67 p/th compared with the previous day's close.

So despite the intra-day panic, by the end of Tuesday the situation on the European gas market had been substantially calmed.

"The gas market did what it is meant to do," Jonathan Stern, leading gas analyst at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies (OIES), told S&P Global Platts Wednesday.

"But it tells us how high prices can spike even for an event that turned out to be of short duration," he said, referring to the Baumgarten explosion.

Stern said it would have been impossible to predict the sequence of events that led to the price spikes on Tuesday, meaning that stress tests cannot prepare countries for all eventualities.

"It reminds us of the fragility of Europe's gas infrastructure and how very quickly you can get into a high price situation which -- coupled with uncertainty about the duration of the outage -- caused significant disturbance to the market," Stern said.


EU RESILIENCE


The EU's gas grid is, however, certainly more resilient to gas supply shocks today than in 2009, when Russian gas supplies to the EU via Ukraine were halted for at least two weeks in January.

According to EU gas grid operators' body Entsog, the worst case scenario for Italy would be if the loss of Russian supply happened on a peak day in a one in 20 cold winter when gas exports to Ukraine from the EU are maintained and the total demand curtailment is shared between Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia.

In that scenario, the impact in each of those countries, including Italy, would be only a 7% demand curtailment, Entsog said in a report last month.

Most of the EU, including Italy, is able to mitigate the loss of Russian gas via Ukraine by making maximum use of alternative Russian import routes via Belarus and Ukraine, higher storage withdrawals and, if needed, more LNG imports and cutting exports to Ukraine, Entsog said.

--Stuart Elliott, stuart.elliott@spglobal.com
--Siobhan Hall, siobhan.hall@spglobal.com
--Edited by Jeremy Lovell, jeremy.lovell@spglobal.com