A number of wild guesses and theories have been put forward recently concerning possible effects of a Russian gas freeze on Europe, either as a result of an energy embargo or a Russian decision to suspend or stop deliveries.
But how would it look? What would we be going through in reality, if gas deliveries were stopped overnight during the cold months in Europe?
In today’s overheated political mood, a reality check is highly warranted—Germany, examining the question of what a major disruption of natural gas supply would entail, is not taking a guess, groping in the darkness. Far from it.
Here is a summary of what they found:
- major disruptions in hospitals, schools, and the workplace;
- multi-billion euro damages in buildings, in their equipment and conduits;
- supply disruptions, including food shortages due to problems in the baking industry, the dairy industry, and the meat industry;
- millions of deaths of livestock (affecting farm animals as well as animals kept in zoos);
- disruption of industrial production, hampering the progress of the economy for years.
The German Bundesnetzagentur has been organising disaster management exercises and audits since 2004 (“LÜKEX” / Länder- und Ressortübergreifende Krisenmanagementübung Exercises), across the German provinces and various fields of professional activity. These exercises cover different subjects, meant to meet every occasion, bringing specific disaster management situations under close scrutiny.
LÜKEX 2018 focused on the readiness of emergency mechanisms in the event of crises in the gas industry. It examined possible responses to and consequences of a severe gas shortage situation. The simulated situation assumed a particularly cold winter period in which gas storage facilities’ capacities would be challenged. Considering that aberrant Arctic fronts occasionally dip into southern Germany, the test facility ran sustained temperatures below -25 °C. LÜKEX 2018 confirmed that gas storage facilities would sink below critical values. In this complex fictitious situation, several technical, economic, and weather factors were combined, leading to a serious shortage of gas.
The exercise had sobering results.
The disruption of gas supply may seem like a minor issue in comparison with a total power outage, a major terrorist act, or a natural disaster—but, apparently, it isn’t.
Hospitals, for instance, would be impossible to heat, leading to mandatory evacuation. Ensuring the appropriate accommodation of patients would be impossible, since buildings which could be properly heated and provide the necessary healthcare services do not exist.
The same goes for retirement homes, where all elderly residents would have to be relocated to alternative sites.
The same applies to many thousands of prison inmates, since the conditions in prisons would also become untenable in the absence of heating.
Offices, authorities, and government institutions left without heating would have to be vacated: the general health and safety requirement of ensuring a room temperature of a minimum of 18 degrees permanently would be impossible to meet—sedentary work is not allowed to be performed under 18 degrees.
Many people would become sick due to compromised immune responses because of the low temperatures in their homes left without heating, including physicians and pharmacists, further aggravating the supply problems.
Childcare could not be provided in unheated rooms in nursery schools, kindergartens, and schools, and finding alternative accommodation for children would also be highly problematic.
Apart from the impact on the human body, major and direct damages to material infrastructure would have to be reckoned with.
Thousands of buildings would break down and deteriorate. The lack of sufficient heating would cause pipes to freeze, even those inside walls and in underground conduits. When heating is permanently off, even the sections normally protected against frostbite would be damaged. Many pipes inside walls would burst and contribute to further deterioration of the building, Replacement of damaged material would take months, if not years.
Damages would be direct and imminent in agriculture, too. If breeding facilities like chicken farms are not heated, hundreds of thousands of animals would perish almost overnight.
Similarly, animals kept in zoos that cannot tolerate the cold would be doomed, and the damage would be incalculable.
Meanwhile, industrial production would grind to an almost complete halt, since gas is indispensable both as fuel for heating and as a crucial base material.
Direct short-term damage would be followed by the disruption of supply chains, with economic effects that are likely to last for years (gas is of fundamental importance in the production of input materials of agriculture, chemical fertilisers, building materials, metallurgy, and countless other industries).
According to the simulation, attempts to resolve the issues would probably cause further problems. Disaster management professionals warn that people affected by extreme cold would resort to conventional stoves and fireplaces, or set up non-standard heating devices, to provide heat, or be compelled to burn fresh wood, garbage, and the sometimes toxic building materials in them. As a consequence, the number of fires and cases of smoke inhalation would skyrocket, requiring an increased number of firefighters deployments. Availability of emergency numbers would be limited due to overloading, and rescue teams would often arrive late at the affected sites.
The LÜKEX 18 exercise demonstrated that severe problems would be expected in food processing and the feed industry, since more than half of their energy needs are provided by gas.
It was already established early on, in the course of preparation for the exercise, that at a time of gas shortage, the disruption of supply would have an immediate impact on food production and food processing entities, such as major bakeries and dairy production facilities.
Such deficits could result in temporary regional shortages of bread and dairy products.
Were they to face a disruption of gas supply, slaughterhouses would also be affected, since they require gas for heating as well as for the processing of meat.
It is reassuring, however, that the LÜKEX 18 exercise analysed a situation where gas supply is cut off overnight, in extreme cold weather. This year’s winter is about to retreat, and spring arrives soon. The consequences of an embargo would be less extreme in the spring and the summer, but would still exceed, by a long shot, what commissioner Timmermans simply declared to be a case of “turning the heating down a bit.”