US Ratchets Up Pressure on Nord Stream 2

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Nord Stream 2 - Construction site receiving station

The US has imposed new sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 project to underline that it continues to oppose the 55 billion cubic meter per year gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. But the measures are too little, too late to stop the already-built pipeline from going ahead.

The sanctions, however, maintain the geopolitical pressure at a high level around Nord Stream 2, whose certification was put on hold by the German regulator last week. The pipe owner, Gazprom, is not giving in to opponents’ demands to send more gas to Europe via the Ukrainian transit route despite another Nord Stream 2 delay. The Russian state-run gas giant is keeping export flows restricted as Europe enters the winter with high spot prices of around $1,000 per thousand cubic meters.

US pressure on Germany and the EU to delay or dismiss the pipe’s technical and legal certification could prove to be more effective than sanctions to stop the project or limit its operational flows. Berlin, the key project backer, in July inked a deal with Washington to mitigate the pipeline’s impact on Ukraine as a key transit route for Russian gas to Europe.

But sanctions, including the latest, can hardly kill or delay the project for longer, as many critics in the US Congress have been calling on the Biden administration to do. They tend to target only Russian vessels and shipowners that have no foreign businesses and give waivers to German companies and individuals, as the Biden administration restores trans-Atlantic relations damaged during the Trump presidency.

US Imposes Sanctions

In a report to Congress, the Department of State imposed sanctions against two vessels and one Russia-linked entity, Transadria, involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement on Nov. 22. Transadria will be sanctioned under the Protecting Europe's Energy Security Act (Peesa) introduced in late 2019 and amended in late 2020, and its vessel, the Marlin offshore support vessel, will be identified as blocked property, Blinken said without naming the other targeted vessel. Marlin was on Nov. 23 expected to arrive in St. Petersburg from Mukran, the German base port for Nord Stream 2 construction vessels.

With these new sanction targets, the US has now blacklisted eight persons and identified 17 of their vessels as blocked property pursuant to Peesa in connection with Nord Stream 2, Blinken said. Bloomberg reported citing a US source that another vessel, Blue Ship, which did rock placement for Nord Stream 2, was not sanctioned because it is owned by a company affiliated with the German government.

The US administration continues to oppose Nord Stream 2, including via sanctions, but also continues to work with Germany and other allies and partners to reduce the risks posed by the pipeline to Ukraine and frontline Nato and EU countries and “push back against harmful Russian activities, including in the energy sphere,” Blinken said.

Moscow regards the US sanctions as unlawful and inappropriate, “moreover in light of the strenuous efforts to revive the lost dialogue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Nov. 23.

Restricted Gas Flows

With Nord Stream 2 launch likely to be delayed until mid-spring or even summer 2022, Gazprom might be forced to book more transportation capacity in Ukraine or in the Yamal-Europe pipeline across Poland, but for now it remains as reluctant as before.

Since Nov. 11, Gazprom has been using the Ukrainian transit to the full 109 million cubic meter per year capacity booked under a five-year transit deal (see graph), after more than a month of lower shipments, but still abstains from booking extra capacity like it did in periods of high demand during the past winter and in the spring.

Gas flows via Yamal-Europe now remain at around 28 million cubic meters per day, slightly below the 31 MMcm/d capacity booked for November. Gazprom did not book any Yamal-Europe capacity for December at a monthly auction, although it can still book weekly and daily capacity.

Despite President Vladimir Putin’s instructions to build up its storage in Germany and Austria, Gazprom is not injecting gas very actively. It even keeps withdrawing the gas from storage sporadically instead of booking more transportation capacity to cover demand. In the week from Nov. 15 to Nov. 22, it injected only a net 4.5 MMcm/d in four storage facilities in Germany — Rehden, Jemgum, Etzel and Katharina — and withdrew a net 1.1 MMcm/d from the Haidach storage in Austria.

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