Vienna decided on Monday to connect the giant Haidach gas reservoir to the Austrian energy network. An action that is considered legitimate because the tank is on national territory, except that it is still used in Germany. But the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis changed everything.
32 km from the border of Germany, in the Austrian hinterland, not far from the city of Salzburg, stands a concrete example of the problems caused by the gas war launched in Russia. An imbroglio around the giant Haidach gas reservoir was formed as Moscow announced on Monday July 25 a significant reduction in the delivery of precious hydrocarbons to Europe through the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.
A few hours before this Russian decision, Leonore Gewessler, the Minister of Energy and Environment of Austria, informed the German press that the Haidach reservoir will also be used to meet the energy needs of Austrians.
Second largest gas reservoir in Western Europe
An announcement that sent shivers down the spine of the inhabitants of many Länder (German administrative regions) in southern Germany, starting with the mighty Bavaria. In fact, for historical and economic reasons, the Haidach site, although located in Austria, has so far only been connected to the German energy network and is mainly used to supply Bavaria with electricity.
“We are observing the evolution of the situation [à Haidach, NDLR] with great concern,” admitted Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria.
This region has been used for many years to depend on Haidach energy. This reservoir can hold 2.9 billion m3 of gas, making it the second largest in Western Europe after that of Rehden (northern Germany). So there is plenty to quench the thirst for energy in southern Germany.
Since its commissioning in 2007, the site has been operated by Wingas and Astora, two subsidiaries of Gazprom Germania (nationalized in Berlin in April 2022) and GSA, another branch of the Russian giant. Only Austria is technically in charge of the installation.
A German-centric distribution of tasks explains, in part, why this gas returned to Germany instead of remaining on Austrian soil. It is enough to do business for Bavaria, which does not miss an opportunity to remember that Austria also benefits from this system because the excess gas is redirected to two Austrian regions (Tyrol and Vorarlberg) connected to German gas pipeline.
But the war in Ukraine changed the situation in Vienna. Austria is 80% dependent on Russian gas, which puts the country at the top of the list of those with the most to lose if Russia completely turns off the tap.
Bavaria, from spoiled child to gas poor relative?
Last May, the Austrian government created a plan to reduce this dependence by… 70%. To get this few percent of energy “freedom”, Vienna needs to increase its strategic reserves as much as possible to have a gas security cushion. The plan envisages multiplying them by three, explains the Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten.
The huge Haidach reservoir plays an important role in this regard. The Austrian government is ready to pull out the heavy artillery by expelling Gazprom from the picture so that this reservoir will allow the country to heat up in the winter.
In fact, the Russian giant is no longer supplying this reservoir which is almost empty, noted the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung by peeling data from the European platform Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE).
Austria has therefore adopted a law that makes it possible to place the operator in a notification reservoir to fill it. If the latter does not comply, the government pretends the right to suggest to others to put their gas there. If this threat seems important, the fact remains that “we do not know who can fill this reservoir except the Russians”, said Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Bavarian public radio.
However, all this device was enough to scare Bavaria, which already saw itself from the status of a spoiled child of Russian gas to its poor relative.
Vienna and Berlin sought to reassure the powerful Lands of southern Germany. German Economy Minister Robert Habeck traveled to Vienna on July 12 to discuss the thorny issue of the future of this reservoir with Austrian Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler. An agreement for a joint German-Austrian use of Haidach could have been made on the occasion of this meeting, Süddeutsche Zeitung learned.
But Munich – the capital of the Land of Bavaria – wants proof. Markus Söder, who did not like not being invited to this German-Austrian meeting, wanted “more transparency about this agreement and a clear update on the amount of gas from Haidach reserved for Germany”.
For the Minister-President of Bavaria, the Haidach reservoir can easily illustrate the “limits of integration” of the energy promoted by the European Union, he told the Munich daily Merkur. He fears that, come winter, the Austrian government will be tempted to ignore its agreement with Berlin to meet the energy needs of its population thanks to the Haidach reserves.
The Bavarian concern can also be explained by the fact that the change in the situation in Haidach highlights the serious vulnerability of the energy supply in southern Germany. These regions – mainly Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg – are far from the large reservoirs in the north of the country such as Rehden. “We are the last links in the chain and if, in the north, they use themselves without restraint, we will have no one left, which is unacceptable”, warned Nicole Hoffmeister-Kraut, the Minister of Land Economy. .from Baden-Württemberg.
The liquefied gas terminals, placed on the coast of northern Germany to receive North American natural gas, “are too far from Bavaria to serve this region properly”, says the daily Die Zeit.
Noticing that the winter will be very harsh for him and his Bavarian compatriots, Markus Söder issued a final warning, assuring that “if Bavaria is deprived of gas, all of Germany will suffer”.
The Earth alone represents, indeed, 18.3% of the German GDP, mainly thanks to the chemical industry and the car sector, recalls the Süddeutsche Zeitung. A few kilometers from the Austrian border is what the Germans call the “golden triangle of German chemistry”. An activity area that is one of the most important in the whole Earth and has gained importance thanks to the easy access to gas from Haidach. If this “golden triangle” is deprived of energy from Austria, almost 20,000 jobs will be threatened.