Yamal LNG; Source: Novatek

EU’s ties to Russian gas: LNG tanker routes pinpoint ports in four European countries as touchpoints

Since the Ukraine crisis took the world by storm, Europe has put many measures in place to distance itself from Moscow and cut the cord of energy dependence on Russian gas by shoring up diverse energy sources and supplies from other countries. However, research from Germany’s non-profit environmental research organization, Urgewald, shows that the European Union (EU) has not severed its gas bonds with Russia, as four countries still facilitate deliveries of its liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Yamal LNG; Source: Novatek

Once the so-called weaponization of gas entered the global scene as a result of the Ukraine crisis, the EU swiftly imposed sanctions on the Russian Federation in the hopes of bringing the largest country in the world by area to heel in a bid to end the conflict. These sanctions spurred the rewriting of the global oil map.

As the demand for black gold remained strong despite predictions of peak oil demand, Europe did not curb its consumption, instead, it replaced Russian oil barrel for barrel by getting its hands on more oil imports from a pool of other producers, such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Angola.

Bearing in mind the energy price shocks that marked 2022, policymakers sought to replace coal by securing more natural gas, as the lowest emission fossil fuel, to assuage the growing energy hunger and propel the energy transition agenda forward. 

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Urgewald claims that its analysis of tanker routes has tracked down 15 icebreaking LNG tankers that regularly transport Russian gas to LNG import terminals in four EU countries: Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Spain, keeping Europe open for business as a hub for Russia’s LNG exports.

The analysis, which is said to spotlight the extent to which these four EU countries continue to facilitate deliveries of LNG from Russia, highlights that Moscow is much more dependent on the EU for the LNG business than vice versa. Therefore, Urgewald believes that this is where the EU has a strong lever to impose sanctions.

Furthermore, the NGO’s analysis of Kpler, a merchant ship database, points out that Russia’s largest LNG export port, Sabetta, which is operated by the country’s Novatek on the Siberian Yamal Peninsula, is almost fully dependent on exports to Europe.

Urgewald’s research identifies Zeebrugge in Belgium, Montoir and Dunkerque in France, Bilbao and Mugardos in Spain, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands as the European ports that serve as contact points for LNG deliveries from Yamal. In addition, Zeebrugge and Montoir are perceived to be important hubs for onward exports to countries such as Türkiye, China, or Taiwan.

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According to the NGO, Russia’s flagship Yamal LNG project depends on access to EU ports and 15 icebreaking LNG tankers of the Arc7 class, which were built specifically for the project. Urgewald’s data analysis further emphasizes that almost 90% of all Yamal exports are carried out with these Arc7 tankers all year round. 

In light of this, these ships would have to accept significantly longer transport routes if they did not have any unloading or reloading opportunities in EU waters, thus, the German environmental group deems these ports to be of vital importance for Russia. This is hammered home further by the travel time to the nearest ports in Türkiye, which is at least two weeks while the journey from Yamal to Zeebrugge takes six to seven days.

Sebastian Rötters, energy campaigner and Kpler data analyst at Urgewald, noted: “Even two years after the start of the war of aggression, the EU is the central hub for Russia’s liquid gas business. But although Russia is significantly more dependent on the EU than the other way around, the member states do not even prohibit the reloading of LNG to other ships in their waters and re-exports from the EU to Asia. 

“The German federal government must ensure that the EU completely bans the import of Russian LNG and sanctions ships that call at Russian LNG ports. As a result, Yamal’s exports would practically come to a standstill because Novatek simply lacks alternatives among buyers and tankers. New Arc7 tankers are not in sight due to US sanctions. The EU must finally use this effective lever.” 

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From the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on February 24, 2022, the NGO underlines that 34 million tons of LNG have been delivered from Yamal to EU ports or transshipped in EU waters, corresponding to over half of German gas consumption in 2023. It is believed that at least 6.6 million tons or around 20% of total deliveries were shipped via Europe to non-European countries. 

Oleh Savitskyi, Ukraine’s environmental organization Razom We Stand, commented: “The LNG business is very important to Russia. It is a significant source of revenue for Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine. At the same time, it should be used for political blackmail against the West. But the EU does not need Russian liquid gas for its energy security. We call on the European Council to adopt targeted sanctions and stop Russia’s dirty LNG supplies.”

Meanwhile, the possible extension of EU sanctions to LNG imports was a hot topic at Monday’s EU energy ministers’ meeting, after more than 60 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, calling for a complete ban on gas imports from Russia. 

Recently, a coalition of seven NGOs also sent a letter, encouraging the European Commission to set fossil fuel phase-out dates within the roadmap for Europe’s 2040 target, after the COP28 UN climate talks ended with the call to transition away from all fossil fuels.

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Additionally, a study by the IEEFA institute delves into the importance of LNG trade with Europe as a source of income for Russia with EU countries paying €8.1 billion for Russia’s LNG deliveries in 2023.