Austrian gas hub explosion rattles Europe’s energy markets

Natural gas and power prices jumped in Europe after an explosion at one of the continent’s biggest gas hubs further tightened supplies during a cold snap.


Gas futures rose the most in more than eight years in Britain, which already is struggling to absorb the impact of a crack that shut down a North Sea pipeline network. After snow fell for two days in London, cooler-than-normal temperatures spread from the Alps to Scandinavia, raising demand for heating fuels.


A blast at the Baumgarten compressor station in Austria injured at least 18 people and left one missing and presumed dead, interrupting flows at one of the main points where Russian natural gas enters Europe. The facility about 50 kilometres (31 miles) north-east of Vienna transports the equivalent of a tenth of Europe’s gas demand. Italy said it will declare a gas emergency.


”It is the worst possible time for a big gas hub to burn, since capacity is needed ahead of the winter and it changes the expectations of how much gas there will be available,” said Arne Bergvik, the chief analyst at Swedish utility Jamtkraft AB. “If weather turns colder and capacity is unavailable, it will absolutely drive up power prices.”


Britain felt the threat most acutely, since it lacks the gas storage sites and web of interconnections which link markets across continental Europe.


Front-month gas in Britain jumped as much as 23% to 73.7 pence a therm (US$9.86 a million British thermal units) on ICE Futures Europe, the highest since December 2013. The comparable UK power contract rose as much as 15%, according to broker data compiled by Bloomberg.


The blast in Austria roiled other European markets. German power futures for next year climbed to the highest in more than four years, advancing as much as 3.8% on the EEX exchange in Leipzig. Coal rose as much as 2% to US$90.75 a ton, the highest for a front-year contract since May 2013 on ICE Futures Europe. Power prices also jumped in France and the Nordic region.


“For the moment, it will make coal generation a bit more profitable,” said Konstantin Lenz, the Berlin-based managing director of Lenz Energy.


Gas flows into the UK surged to a four-year high overnight as shippers responded to higher prices. Liquefied natural gas tankers may be able to fill some of the gap, but those vessels take days or even weeks to arrive, said Massimo Di-Odoardo, principal analyst of gas & LNG at Wood Mackenzie Ltd.


Supplies from the Netherlands, Belgium and storage sites increased. The market was already responding to a halt in production at some North Sea gas fields after a shutdown of the Forties pipeline network was announced on the 11th December because of a hairline crack. That boosted prices on the 11th December, when a rare snow fell across the UK, forcing flights to be cancelled in London and Birmingham.


“Gas demand is at above average levels because of the cold snap,” he said, estimating the shortfall of supply from the Forties outage at about 10% of average winter demand. “If outages persist, prices will remain high for some time.”


Compounding supply problems, the Norwegian network manager said on the 12th December that flows would be trimmed from Troll, Europe’s largest offshore gas field, after an unplanned outage that also affected other sites in Norway, the UK’s biggest foreign supplier.


Gas flows from Belgium and the Netherlands also dipped from near-record levels after the explosion in Austria.


Baumgarten is Austria’s largest gas reception point and main distribution hub for imports from countries including Russia, Europe’s biggest gas supplier. Moscow-based Gazprom PJSC said it “is working on redistribution of gas flows and does its best to secure uninterrupted gas supplies to the clients on this transport direction.”


Police are investigating the exact circumstances of the blast, which is assumed to be the result of a technical incident, Gas Connect Austria GmbH said on its website.


The UK is more vulnerable than normal this winter because Centrica Plc is closing the nation’s biggest storage site after more than 30 years. The Rough facility was able to meet as much as 10% of peak winter demand but that is now much reduced as it pumps out its last remaining fuel.


It takes about two weeks to bring LNG from Qatar, the UK’s biggest supplier of the super-chilled fuel. Only one tanker, the Bu Samra, is confirmed as arriving in the UK this month.


The first tanker from Russia’s Arctic plant Yamal LNG may also head to Britain and would arrive in about five days, according to shipping website sea-distances.


“Higher gas prices, higher coal prices and uncertainties about the delivery of gas in all of Europe are driving up power prices,” said Steffen Gursinsky, a trader at Energieunion GmbH in Schwerin, Germany.