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Home heating price increases have certainly been a major concern for recession-strapped households in northern climates, but the possibility of having one’s heat completely shut-off in this new era of natural resource ‘muscle flexing’ and bitter political show-downs is perhaps a whole new energy policy boiling point in Europe and beyond. Russia’s decision this week to turn off the flow of gas from its Gazprom pipelines to the Ukraine, which in turn forced many European countries to rely on their (in some cases virtually nonexistent) gas reserves, demonstrates the dire need to identify alternatives to Siberia and the Middle East for our massive oil and gas dependencies. Given that my family and I are currently in Bulgaria for six weeks, we are experiencing the Gazprom gas cut-off crisis first-hand. This issue will not be going away any time soon, despite the band-aid patches that will crop up over the next few weeks and months.
Media sources from around the globe began reporting earlier this week that exports of Russian gas via Gazprom had ceased to flow from Russia to the Ukraine. Central and Eastern Europe were worst hit as the bitter cold shuddered in the New Year with temperatures plunging to -10 C or lower in some regions. Heating systems were shut down as regional officials grappled with how to allocate whatever reserves, if any, they had – does one prioritize the elderly, the very young, schools, hospitals? According to reports from the BBC, “the EU says it wants its own monitors to check the flow of gas. The EU depends on Russia for a quarter of its gas supplies, some 80% of which is pumped through Ukraine. The countries that have reported a total halt of Russian supplies via Ukraine included Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, and Austria. Italy said it had received only 10% of its expected supply.”
photography by Abigail Doan
Here in Bulgaria the situation is particularly dire as gas reserves can be measured in days alone. Cities outside of Sofia have been more drastically affected, although family members of ours living in the capital’s Soviet-style blocs were trying to manage in freezing cold temperatures without any heat or hot water. Given that centralized heating is the norm for these communities, every household is affected when a shut down occurs.
Politics and not just economics are to blame for the finger pointing that is occurring back and forth across the border between the Ukraine and Russia, as each accuses the other for the cut-off in supply. Many view this crisis as a case of Russia’s Gazprom and the Ukraine’s Naftogaz taking the EU’s gas supply “hostage”. This is perhaps the 21st Century’s first glimpse into how future wars may be fought.
Given that shut-offs like this typically affect economically disadvantaged communities in a country like Bulgaria, it is disconcerting to observe how limited supplies are siphoned away from poorer to wealthier communities that can afford to pay higher gas prices.
This begs one to ask whether we have entered a whole new era of wartime preparedness, where citizens anticipate energy blockades as they go about their daily lives – particularly as we struggle globally to define viable sustainable energy plans.
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