EU again seeks elusive gas price cap to contain energy costs

BRUSSELS — With frost biting outside European Union headquarters, energy ministers again sought to overcome deep differences today on a natural gas price cap that many hope would make utility bills cheaper so people can stay a little warmer during harsh winter days — if not this year, then later.

EU energy ministers have been forced into five emergency meetings because they cannot come to agreement on a maximum ceiling to pay for gas because of fear that global suppliers will simply bypass Europe when others offer more money.

Despite the time pressure two days ahead of an EU leaders summit, today’s meeting “will not be easy also because member states do have very different views and very different concerns,” EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said. “Everybody has to show some flexibility, and everybody has to be able to propose some compromises.”

The 27 nations have stuck together through eight rounds of sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine and energy-saving measures to avoid shortages of the fuel used to generate electricity, heat homes and power factories. But they cannot come close to agreement on setting a complicated price cap that had been promised in October as a way to reduce energy bills that have soared because of Russia’s invasion.

“So far, we were able to show the unity and the solidarity, and I believe we are strongly asked to continue with this approach,” said Jozef Sikela, the Czech industry minister chairing today’s meeting. If not, he said, “there is a reputation risk, there is a lot of risk around.”

One side is demanding a cap to push down gas prices for households — including Greece, Spain, Belgium, France and Poland — while nations like Germany and the Netherlands are insisting supplies are at risk if a cap stops EU countries from buying gas above a certain price. They have failed to agree on issues including what the price ceiling would have to be, how many days it should take for it to kick in, and when and how it should be deactivated.

The scare of exorbitant prices came in the heat of summer when a massive August spike stunned consumers and politicians, forcing the bloc to look for a cap to contain volatile prices that are fueling inflation. Months later, diplomats say a deal is still out of reach.

Simson last month proposed a “safety price ceiling” to kick in if natural gas exceeds 275 euros ($290) per megawatt hour for two weeks and if it is 58 euros higher than the price of liquefied natural gas on world markets. Such a system might not have averted hikes as high as in August — when prices hit nearly 350 euros per megawatt hour on Europe’s TTF benchmark but fell below 275 euros within days — and was met with derision. Gas is now trading at 140.55 euros per megawatt hour.

The inability to find a compromise on the price cap also has held up plans for joint gas purchases and a solidarity mechanism to help the neediest countries because the measures would be agreed on as a package.

On Monday, the heads of the International Energy Agency and the European Commission said the bloc is expected to weather an energy crisis this winter but needs to speed renewables to the market and take other steps to avoid a potential natural gas shortage next year.

Natural gas and electricity prices have soared as Moscow slashed gas supplies to Europe, whose officials have accused Russia of energy warfare to punish EU countries for supporting Ukraine.

As a result of trade disruptions tied to the war in Ukraine, EU nations have reduced the overall share of Russian natural gas imports to the EU from 40% before the invasion to around 7%. And gas storage is as good as full, far exceeding targets.

The EU has relied on increased imports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, from places like the United States to help address the fall in Russian supplies.

If talks fail today, the issue could end up in the lap of EU leaders Thursday. Barring a deal in principle there, energy ministers still have a meeting next Monday to kick off the Christmas week.