How bad will it get? “We expect the price to increase due to the tight supply,” says Tom Marzec-Manser of energy consulting firm ICIS. “And that will be the main way the market faces the problem. We have already seen industrial shutdowns in Europe as prices rise and we may see more. Once this happens, the demand will start to decline. And yet, if that doesn’t work, then no one really knows for sure just what is going to happen.
It’s easy to start sketching doomsday scenarios. We could see shutdowns, with the heat and gas stoves turned off; retirees could freeze to death, while the rest of us put on extra coats and reheat our dinner in the microwave, assuming the power grid is still working. In reality, it probably won’t happen at this point. As a first option, the government could start restricting supply to industrial users, who account for up to 20 percent of aggregate demand. Industries such as chemicals, paper, packaging and building materials, all of which are heavy consumers of energy, could see their factories run in a three-day week. After that, schools and offices could also be put on a three-day week to save energy, as could retailers (a mall uses a lot of heat in the winter) and then eventually shut down completely. This would take enormous pressure off the system. After that, there could be the kind of phased blackouts we saw in the 1970s, designed to survive meager supplies during the winter. It wouldn’t be great. But that would mean that the heating would continue to work for most families.
But it would still be a disaster for the government. The last Prime Minister to put the country on a three-day week in the midst of an energy crisis was the man who took us to the European Union, Sir Edward Heath. Historians might see a certain irony in the symmetry of whoever brought us out of the EU, Boris Johnson, in repeating this humiliation. But not many people would find it funny, and it would destroy any reputation for a basic skill. Under these circumstances, could Johnson be tempted to strike a deal with Putin to keep the lights on?
It is already not difficult to detect a certain thaw in Britain’s relations with Russia. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, has been seen in the squad’s games again, after an 18-month hiatus due to visa issues. We hear less and less about the scandalous poisonings on British soil. Is the ground being softened for a “deal”, to put it politely, that sees Russia shipping additional gas to the UK?
“Everyone is talking about potential political leverage,” says Ruseckas. “But the idea is absurd. Who do you sit down and talk to, and what do you demand? This is just not how things work. Well, maybe. But if it was about having no choice, running out of stocks and not being in readiness, what would a deal look like?