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EU softens gas consumption curbs in sign energy crisis easing

By Kate Abnett

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission has asked EU countries to keep curbing their gas use but softened the policy to be entirely voluntary, in a sign of optimism that the worst of Europe's energy crisis is over.

European Union countries set a voluntary target in 2022 to cut their gas consumption 15% during winter months - one of numerous emergency measures passed after Russia slashed gas deliveries to Europe, triggering a crisis of tight supply and record-high prices.

The European Commission on Tuesday recommended that countries continue to curb gas use by 15%, compared with average consumption during 2017-2022.

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However, it removed an option, agreed in 2022, that could have made the 15% gas cut mandatory in a supply crisis.

EU diplomats said some countries viewed the policy as no longer necessary since the peak of Europe's energy crisis has passed, and European countries have consistently slashed their gas demand since Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

But they said few were outright opposed to the recommendation, and EU countries' energy ministers were likely to accept it at a meeting next month.

The Commission said Europe's energy supply situation had significantly improved, as countries have replaced Russian supplies with renewable energy and gas from other suppliers.

But tight global gas markets and the EU's aim to completely quit Russian fossil fuels meant continued energy savings were needed, it said.

The price of gas in Europe has fallen this month to near-three-year lows. EU countries are emerging from this winter with unusually full gas storage caverns - at around 64% of capacity, Gas Infrastructure Europe data show.

EU countries' gas use fell by 18% in the period from August 2022, when gas prices hit all-time highs, and December 2023, from normal levels, the European Commission said.

"Gas demand reductions are of course not driven by the target itself, but by a mix of drivers," said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at think-tank Bruegel.

Factors that have curbed Europe's gas use include reduced industrial activity, mild winter temperatures and increased generation from renewable energy, he added.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; Additional reporting by Susanna Twidale; Editing by Susan Fenton)