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Czech Republic to extend coal mining amid high demand

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PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic has decided to reverse plans to halt mining in a key black coal region to help the country safeguard its power supply amid high demand and the energy crunch prompted by the Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Finance Minister Zbynek Stanjura said Thursday that the state-owned OKD company will extend its mining activities in north-eastern Czech Republic until at least the end of next year, with an analysis to be made on a possible further extension until 2025.

The original plans called for mining to be halted there this year, but “demand for black coal is enormous,” Stanjura said.

Some other European Union countries are turning back to coal as a replacement for reduced deliveries of Russian natural gas, threatening climate goals in Europe. Russia has trimmed gas flows to EU countries like Germany, Italy and Austria on top of its gas cutoffs to France, Poland, Bulgaria and others.

OKD’s chief executive, Roman Sikora, said the Czech company was planning to mine 1.3 million metric tons of black coal in 2023.

It will be mostly used for generating power and household heating. Coal-fired power plants generate almost 50% of total Czech electricity output.

The decision came after the European Union agreed to ban Russian coal starting in August over the war in Ukraine and as it works to reduce the bloc’s energy ties to Russia.

The Czech government aims to phase out coal in energy production by 2033 while increasing the country’s reliance on nuclear power.

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OPEC+ weighs large oil cutback to boost sagging prices

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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The OPEC+ alliance of oil-exporting countries on Wednesday will debate a potentially large cut in the amount of crude it ships to the global economy — a move that could help Russia weather a looming European ban on oil imports and raise gasoline prices for U.S. drivers just ahead of national midterm elections.

Energy ministers from the OPEC cartel, whose leading member is Saudi Arabia, and allied non-members including Russia are meeting in person at the group’s Vienna headquarters for the first time since early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, who has been sanctioned by the U.S., was attending the meeting in Austria’s capital.

A production cut could benefit Russia by establishing higher prices ahead of a European Union ban on most Russian oil imports, a sanction over the invasion of Ukraine that takes effect at the end of the year, analysts at Commerzbank say.

Russia “will need to find new buyers for its oil when the EU embargo comes into force in early December and will presumably have to make further price concessions to do so,” the analysts wrote in a note. “Higher prices beforehand — boosted by production cuts elsewhere — would therefore doubtless be very welcome.”

Moscow also faces a separate push by the U.S. and the other Group of Seven wealthy democracies to impose a price cap on Russian oil by Dec. 5. The EU agreed Wednesday on new sanctions that are expected to include a price cap on Russian oil, an EU official said.

Oil prices surged this summer as markets worried about the loss of Russian supplies from sanctions over the war in Ukraine, but they slipped as fears about recessions in major economies and China’s COVID-19 restrictions weighed on demand for crude.

The fall in oil prices has been a boon to U.S. drivers, who saw lower gasoline prices at the pump before costs recently started ticking up, and for U.S. President Joe Biden as his Democratic Party gears up for congressional elections next month.

It’s unclear how much impact a production cut would have on oil prices — and thus gasoline prices — because members are already unable to meet the quotas set by OPEC+. Yet Saudi Arabia may be unwilling to strain its relationship with Russia even if the world’s largest oil exporter had any reservations about cutbacks and has recently has drawn leaders from Biden to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to talk about energy supplies.

The Commerzbank analysts said a small trim would likely see oil prices fall further, while the group would need to remove at least 500,000 barrels day from the market to bolster prices.

Such a production cut “would undoubtedly signal to the market the determination and resolve of the cartel to support oil prices,” said UniCredit economist Edoardo Campanella. But supply would drop by less than announced.

“If the group cuts target production by 1 million barrels per day, actual output would likely drop by about 550,000 barrels per day — as countries like Russia or Nigeria that are producing below quota would see their formal target decline but remaining above what they can currently produce,” Campanella said.

At its last meeting in September, the group reduced the amount of oil it produces by 100,000 barrels a day in October. That token cut didn’t do much to boost lower oil prices, but it put markets on notice that OPEC+ was willing to act if prices kept falling.

International benchmark Brent has sagged as low as $84 in recent days after spending most of the summer months over $100 per barrel. U.S. oil prices fell below $80 per barrel Friday. Ahead of the meeting, U.S. crude traded at $86.38 and Brent at $91.66.

The White House declined to comment before OPEC leaders made a final decision on oil production, but press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. would not extend releases from its strategic reserve to increase global supplies.

“We’re not considering new releases,” Jean-Pierre said.

Biden has tried to receive credit for gasoline prices falling from their average June peak of $5.02 — with administration officials highlighting a late March announcement that a million barrels a day would be released from the strategic reserve for six months. High inflation is a fundamental drag on Biden’s approval and has dampened Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections.

Gasoline prices recently turned up because of refinery outages in California and Ohio, and vary widely, from over $6 per gallon in California to under $3 in some parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast, according to motoring club federation AAA. The national average of $3.80 is up slightly but down from a record high on June 14.

One major factor weighing on oil prices has been fears of recessions in places like the U.S. and Europe and slowdowns due to China’s strict COVID-19 measures.

Higher inflation is sapping consumer purchasing power, while central banks are raising interest rates to cool off overheating prices, a step that could slow economic growth. Oil prices at their summer highs, and higher natural gas prices boosted by Russian cutbacks to Europe, helped fuel inflation.

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Associated Press reporter Josh Boak contributed from Washington.

David Mchugh, The Associated Press

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Europe faces ‘unprecedented risk’ of gas shortage, IEA says

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By David Mchugh

Europe faces “unprecedented risks” to its natural gas supplies this winter after Russia cut off most pipeline shipments and could wind up competing with Asia for already scarce and expensive liquid gas that comes by ship, the International Energy Agency said.

The Paris-based IEA said in its quarterly gas report released Monday that European Union countries would need to reduce use by 13% over the winter in case of a complete Russian cutoff amid the war in Ukraine. Much of that cutback would have to come from consumer behavior such as turning down thermostats by 1 degree and adjusting boiler temperatures as well as industrial and utility conservation, the group said.

The EU on Friday agreed to mandate a reduction in electricity consumption by at least 5% during peak price hours.

Just a trickle of Russian gas is still arriving in pipelines through Ukraine to Slovakia and across the Black Sea through Turkey to Bulgaria. Two other routes, under the Baltic Sea to Germany and through Belarus and Poland, have shut down.

Another hazard in the study was a late winter cold snap, which would be particularly challenging because underground gas reserves flow more slowly at the end of the season due to less gas and lower pressure in the storage caverns. The EU has already filled storage to 88%, ahead of its goal of 80% before winter. The IEA assumed 90% would be needed in its Russian cutoff scenario.

Businesses in Europe have already cut back natural gas use, sometimes simply by abandoning energy-intensive activity such as making steel and fertilizer, while smaller businesses like bakeries are feeling a severe crimp in their costs.

High prices for gas, which is used for heating homes, generating electricity and a host of industrial processes are feeding through to record consumer inflation of 10% in the 19 EU member countries that use the euro and sapping so much consumer purchasing power that economists predict a recession at the end of this year and the beginning of next.

European governments and utilities have made up much of the Russian shortfall by purchasing expensive supplies of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, that comes by ship from countries such as the U.S. and Qatar and by obtaining increased pipeline supply from Norway and Azerbaijan.

The goal is to prevent storage levels from falling so far that governments must ration gas to businesses. Gas storage must remain above 33% for a secure winter, according to the IEA, while levels below that risk shortages if there’s a late cold snap.

Lower levels also would make it harder for Europe to refill storage next summer, while higher reserves from conservation would help lower extremely high prices.

European leaders say the cutback in Russian gas is energy blackmail aimed at pressuring governments over their support for Ukraine and sanctions against Moscow.

Since Russia halted flows this month through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline running under the Baltic Sea to Germany, it and the parallel Nord Stream 2 — built but never operated after Germany refused to certify it — were damaged in underwater explosionsthat European governments say are sabotage.

Demand for liquefied gas has driven up prices and tightened supply to the extent that poorer countries in Asia cannot afford it. Bangladesh is experiencing widespread power blackouts, while Pakistan faces rolling blackouts and has introduced reduced working hours for shops and factories to save electricity.

“Interregional competition in LNG procurement may create further tension, as additional European needs would put more pressure on other buyers, especially in Asia, and conversely cold spells in Northeast Asia could limit Europe’s access to LNG,” the agency said.

The gas crisis in Europe has also deprived Asian countries of the limited number of floating regasification terminals, which were expected to play a major role in LNG imports in Southeast Asia. Europe has secured 12 of the vessels and plans another nine.

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