Other factors that contributed to Europe's low gas reserves included a cold winter last year, less power from renewables and strong summer demand for shipments of liquid gas in Asia.
When pressed by reporters on the call, Birol resisted saying directly that Russia was using gas to put political pressure on western Europe. Russia has moved thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine and made demands that Ukraine be permanently barred from membership in the NATO alliance. It also wants German and European Union regulators to approve its newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bypass other countries and start bringing natural gas directly to Europe, but it faces opposition from Ukraine, Poland and the U.S.
Birol responded: “I would also note that today’s low Russian gas flows to Europe coincide with heightened geopolitical tensions over Ukraine. I just wanted to highlight this coincidence.”
Gas levels in underground storage — the primary way utilities meet surges in demand for heat and electricity — are at only 50% of capacity, compared with the historical average of 70% at this point in the year. That has sent natural gas prices soaring, a commercial opportunity that Russia's state-owned supplier Gazprom has foregone.
“Uncertainty over price and supply remains high, with most of the heating season still to come,” Birol said. He said supplies of liquid natural gas sent by ship were helping but that its timeliness was limited due to longer transportation times.
He said Gazprom was behind much of the lower storage, with the company accounting for half of the deficit in stored gas despite owning only 10% of Europe's storage capacity.