Since last month, the German government has been rapidly pumping fuel into the vast underground site in Rehden, hoping to fill it in time for the winter, when demand for gas surges to heat homes and businesses.
The scene is being repeated at storage facilities across the continent, in a jousting over energy between Europe and Russia that has been escalating since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“If the storage facilities are not filled by the end of summer, the markets will interpret that as a warning of price spikes or even energy shortages,” said Henning Gloystein, a director at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm.
Gas prices are already extraordinarily high, about six times what they were a year ago. Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, has warned that the persistently high energy costs were threatening to plunge Europe’s largest economy into an economic crisis, and the government has called on consumers and companies to conserve gas.
To avoid a repeat of last year, and to safeguard against supply disruptions, the European Union agreed in May to require member states to fill their storage facilities to at least 80 percent of capacity by Nov. 1. So far, countries are making good progress toward this goal, with overall European storage levels at 55 percent.
The giant facility in Rehden is more than 12 percent full, but Germany, Europe’s largest gas consumer, has reached an overall level of 58 percent — both well above the levels this time last year. Other big gas users, including France and Italy, have stores at similar levels, while Spain has more than 77 percent.
But while storage levels are still edging up, Gazprom’s cutbacks put those targets in doubt and threaten a crunch next winter, analysts say.
If Nord Stream was shut down completely, “Europe could run out of storage of gas in January,” said Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president for gas research at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm.
The gambit is succeeding. European gas futures have risen about 50 percent over the last week.
The reduction in supplies to the German pipeline, which also affected flows to other European countries including France, Italy and the Netherlands, dashed any remaining hope among European leaders that they can count on Russian gas, perhaps the most difficult fuel to replace.
“It is now clear that the contracts that we have with Gazprom are not worth anything anymore,” said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a research institution in Brussels. Analysts say Moscow will probably continue to use gas for maximum leverage, doing what it can to put the brakes on Europe’s efforts to fill storage, in order to keep prices high and increase the vulnerability of countries like Germany and Italy to political pressure over energy.
In recent days, the governments of Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have all taken steps to try to conserve gas, in part by turning to coal-fired power plants that either had been shuttered or were scheduled for phaseout. The moves have raised concerns that the European Union’s effort to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be driven off track.
Two years ago, Germany decided to phase out coal-burning power plants by 2038, in its mission to be carbon-free by 2045. But last week Mr. Habeck, who is a member of the Greens party, announced that the government would be temporarily reversing those efforts in response to the gas cutbacks.