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Tom Nicholls: Belarus blocks Russian oil flows to Europe

The EU has more to worry about By Tom Nicholls, journalist The energy dispute between Belarus and Moscow has intensified amid reports that Minsk has blocked flows of Russian oil to Europe. The European Commission has confirmed an interruption of oil supplies to Poland and Germany through the Druzhba pipeline and is seeking an assessment from both countries of how they will be affected. m_23881.jpg Belarus’ Lukashenka gets tough EU energy commissioner Andris Pielbags said the cuts pose “no immediate risk” to energy supplies to the EU, but is seeking an “urgent and detailed explanation” from Belarus and Russia. Although the EU has oil stocks equivalent to 90 days’ of consumption, a spokesman said that if the problem is not solved “within hours” alternative import plans will be considered. The Druzhba pipeline is a key part of European oil supply and any interruption would exacerbate fears in Europe about the extent to which the continent is reliant on Russia and other former Soviet Union states for energy supplies. Around 30% of the oil imported in to the EU originates in Russia and half of that crosses Belarus. One EU official pointed out the irony of the pipeline’s name: Druzhba means Friendship. Those fears are already riding high: the stoppage comes just days after the resolution of a dispute over gas prices between Russia and Belarus that could have resulted in a shortfall in gas supplies to Europe if Gazprom had carried out its threat to stop supplies to Belarus. And a year ago, Europe’s gas supplies were briefly affected because of a dispute over gas pricing between Russia and Ukraine. According to Russian news reports, Transneft head Semyon Vainshtok has accused Belarus of removing Russian oil destined for Europe from the pipeline since the weekend. Belarus has diverted 79,000 tonnes of oil so far, Vainshtok has been quoted as saying. The Belarusian foreign ministry has denied blocking the transit of Russian oil and has said Belarus is not responsible for a decrease of the pipeline’s pressure. The two governments have been at loggerheads twice in recent days. First was the gas dispute. Then, on 1 January, the Russian government introduced an export duty of $181 per tonne of crude oil delivered to Belarus – supplies on which there previously had been no duty. Two days after that, Belarus hit back by placing a customs tax of $45 per tonne on Russian crude oil in transit to the West through Belarus pipelines. The 2,500-mile-long pipeline has the capacity to ship over 1.2 million barrels a day to eastern and central Europe and generally works at or close to its full capacity.