Europe has a gas crisis, but could it become bigger next winter?

Those who didn’t have trouble getting gas for their cars and heating in the thick of January’s polar vortex should be reassured that Europe is safer as winter approaches.

The fuel crisis will likely be much smaller this year — because the region was already facing a problem in winter, when supply was the weakest of the three seasons.

And heating demand will only grow as temperatures drop. Still, the problems Europe is confronting will have lasting repercussions.

Energy officials have already ramped up their contingency plans. The U.K. and Norway are quietly placing some of their natural gas supplies off-shore and onto boats, out of the reach of Russian power companies. The increased awareness, according to analysts, will likely prevent any major disruptions.

“It won’t be a repeat of the cold snap of a couple of years ago, but the cold weather will have a marked impact on the utilities’ demand and on supplies,” William Maldonado, a spokeswoman for the European Gas Environment Network, a nonprofit group whose website states it is “actively engaged in securing the critical energy needs of the European Union,” told The Washington Post.

The backdrop to the protests in Ukraine, Russia’s largest customer, remains intact. Russia is allowing Ukraine to funnel more gas via its pipelines to Western European countries. That deal, analysts say, allows Russia to keep the pressure on Ukraine to do what Russia wants.

And if relations with President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, rife with disputes over gas, don’t improve, the disruption could become even more intense, analysts say. That would keep at bay the economic and political benefits of Putin’s decision to renew military cooperation with Ukraine following years of conflict.

Analysts expect minimal disruptions. As the days get colder, gas pipelines will stop running, causing irregular demand. That should free up pipelines, allowing enough gas to continue flowing to Ukraine and Western Europe.

But the warmer winter weather could worsen some problems the region is already confronting. Much of the world uses gas as a heat source, and the utility system is already strained.

Ukraine’s government urged its residents to turn down their thermostats, but also to reduce the amount of electricity they use as well, as the gas shortages bite.

In Germany, southern regions saw a run on natural gas because the Balkan countries importing Russian gas rely on central regions for power generation. Gas supply is set to be constrained in Poland, as well.

Gas consumption will be higher as home-heating and industrial users crank up their needs. At least a bit of the increased demand comes from foreign operations of major gas suppliers. Russia sent a surplus of natural gas to Finland in January, and Romania reached a supply agreement last year with Russia that increases reliance on Russian imports.

Lawmakers in Poland argued that tighter regulations in Russia could help prevent disruptions.

But more importantly, the regions already facing extreme gas shortages will need to start building expensive natural gas pipelines.

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