Unlike those unsightly, ramshackled gasworks that some of us recall from childhood, the modern German facility near the village of Rehden is somewhat more cutting edge. No towering, rust encrusted edifice surrounded by greasy polystyrene take-away trays blown in from the bins of the chippy opposite here. That's because the bulk of the facility is hidden below ground (and there's no chippy). The facility is on a mind boggling scale, extending to an area equivalent to nearly 1000 soccer pitches with capacity to store nearly 4-billion cubic metres of gas. Regardless of its enormous size, this site only stashes away 20% of Germany’s stored working gas.
Despite those staggering statistics and incredible physical dimensions, the real biggie is this: The facility is owned and run by the state-owned Russian energy giant, Gazprom. What flows in and what flows out of this installation is ultimately regulated by Russian hands. I have a sneaky feeling that you're already getting the picture and seeing the dilemma with this.
Now, if all that's not enough for us to mull over for a while, Gazprom controls 33% of Austrian, Dutch and German gas storage facilities too. Worryingly, in 2021 the amount of stored natural gas held at these and other storage facilities, within the EU-27, was run down to precariously low levels which prompted sharp price spikes.
We were told that energy supplies were running low because of increasing post pandemic demand but I somehow find this difficult to swallow nowadays. Low energy stocks in Europe surely gave Putin the extra leverage needed to plan his invasion of Ukraine? Diminished energy stocks meant that Putin had his foot pressed firmly against Europe’s throat. With his hands hovering over the 'GAS OFF' switch, there was very little that Europe or the West could do to deter any potential Russian invasion without paying a hefty price. The ongoing invasion has certainly exposed Germany's Achilles heel and therefore that of Europe in general. It's energy - the life-blood of Western civilization.
But it's not just Germans who find themselves exposed to the wiles of Russian energy giants. The same can be said of the Italians, who've invested even less in renewables. Indeed much of Europe has waded headlong into the exact same strategic quagmire by relying too heavily on just-in-time supplies from despotic regimes, including the Kremlin.
OK. I hear you saying that hindsight is a wonderful thing. But let's be candid about this. No one needed to be an expert strategist or a fully fledged economist to understand the magnitude of this long brewed folly. Right in front of our Western noses festered the highly uncomfortable fact that Putin's Russia supplied in excess of 40% of the EU-27 coal and gas imports and well over 25% of EU crude. That's one great big handful of short & curlies to be collectively grasped by?
Of course Germany has been particularly exposed to recent events because the country has fashioned itself as a gigantic economic powerhouse, the great European hub for high quality manufacturing. For this to remain sustainable, Germany needs a secure flow of reliable, cost effective energy. This was and indeed remains a key component of the Germanic economic master plan. However, here also lies the problem. There's currently a growing chorus calling for Germany and the EU to shun Russian energy. This has prompted a frenzy of activity as individual governments go about trying to sniff out viable alternatives as part of an EU-wide drive to slash Russian gas imports - by up to 66% over the next twelve months.
Such a drastic divergence from Russian sourced energy means that Western policymakers must prepare for potential shortages of natural gas and crude oil. Before Russian supplies can realistically be cut off, new sources need to be secured and new infrastructure built. All of this takes time as well as huge capital investment. Without Russian supplies, Europe would have to brace itself for a bumpy ride when it comes to energy security. European leaders have been reduced to taking around their oily begging bowls from one despot to another. Our esteemed leaders find themselves waving around cheque books in mood-lit bivouacs whilst trying to thrash out the Western world's future energy security.
The prospect of a prolonged energy crisis resulting from Putin's invasion of Ukraine can not be ruled out. The Polish government, who have felt particularly vulnerable to Russia's threats, have pressured the EU-27 to halt all Russian energy imports. Meanwhile, in a move that closely mimics that old BBC 'Have I got News for You' cartoonized opening sequence, Moscow is threatening to shut off European gas supplies anyway.
Germany has reluctantly suspended its key Nord Stream 2 pipeline programme. Had it gone ahead as planned, this latest pipeline would have doubled Russian gas deliveries. However, Germany cannot realistically go any further in sanctioning Russia. The country is completely hamstrung because of its reliance on Russian energy. German authorities have resisted calls for a full embargo, otherwise Germany finds itself suffering even more than Russia. German authorities have warned that halting Russian energy supplies is not feasible in the near or medium term citing severe consequences for the economies of Europe.
The EU's daily energy bill, payable to Moscow, equates to over 800-million Euros. Therefore, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has repeatedly pleaded with the EU to cut economic ties with Moscow. Zelensky worries that Putin is using ever increasing revenues from energy exports to fund the military offensive against his country and potentially onto others too.
We cannot dismiss Zelensky's warnings of potential Russian incursions beyond the Ukrainian border. I say this because we've already learned that we can't simply presume that Vladimir Putin won't hold back from invading neighbouring territories if he feels he can. We've seen for ourselves the depravity of his regime. It literally knows no bounds. Putin's own rhetoric has chillingly threatened the use of weapons of mass destruction. It's difficult to dismiss these as empty threats considering the Putin regime's callous tendency towards 'scorched earth' military tactics, as sadly witnessed in Syria.
This, I feel, is panning out to be an energy crisis like none other. Unlike previous crises which were eventually resolved by market forces, this one might turn out different. It's different this time because a huge black hole has emerged. A black hole that can suck in and devour as much energy and commodities as anyone cares to throw at it. It's the all consuming singularity that has emerged in the form of modern China.
The Western world can shun as much Russian energy as it feels it can afford to but the crux of the matter is clear for all to see. Whatever surpluses there might be created as Europe slaps Putin's wrist will simply be diverted East towards a gleeful China. The great Emperor of the Orient shall let out an almighty burp of satisfaction whilst the West scurries around, like little mice, searching for the crumbs.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.