Chris Bryant

Chris Bryant is the FT's Frankfurt correspondent covering German industry. His previous roles include central and eastern European business correspondent, Berlin correspondent, Washington correspondent and markets reporter in New York.

At times the European Gas Conference in Vienna felt more like a television dating gameshow than a humdrum industry get-together.

It is make-or-break-time for Europe’s ambition to open up the so-called “Southern Corridor” – the bid to access alternative gas supplies in the Caspian region (which holds one quarter of the world’s reserves)  and thereby break the continent’s dependency on Russian gas.

Guenther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, set the cat among the proverbial pigeons this week by appearing to suggest that the Nabucco gas pipeline could be delayed for four years.

Oettinger told Sueddeutsche Zeitung that he hoped the Nabucco consortium would this year take a final investment decision to build the ambitious pipeline bringing natural gas to the European Union from the Caspian.

But he said first gas would flow “probably in 2018″ instead of 2014 as originally planned, without citing reasons for the delay.

Backers of the 3300km pipeline spend a great deal of time trumpeting its credentials as a way to dilute Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, and contradicting speculation there is not sufficient gas or demand to fill it.

Austria’s OMV is among a glut of energy groups pursuing non-conventional gas opportunities in continental Europe.

But Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, chief executive, is cautious about the potential of shale gas, given the challenges of extracting it.

OMV is examining  deposits in the Vienna Basin, where in the 1980s the company drilled to depths of up to 8000 metres.

“We had difficulties managing that 20-25 years ago. The pressure was too high. Then oil prices came down and the drills became uneconomic,” he told the Financial Times.

Today, new hydraulic fracturing techniques could make this gas viable, but OMV is not counting its chickens.

Ever since Europeans began exploring (and colonising) the roasting deserts of north Africa, esoteric-minds have pondered ways of using all that heat and sunlight for something other than producing sweat.

According to Tuesday’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung a consortium of 20 companies, among them Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Munich RE, believe that European consumers could one day swap diminishing fossil fuel supplies for electricity generated from the searing Saharan sun.

Dmitry Medvedev, president of Russia, was in Finland this week where he unveiled proposals for a new legal framework for global energy cooperation.

Although Russia has been talking about a new energy treaty for months, European governments could still be forgiven for being a little surprised by the plans, a copy of which they are set to receive in the post.

After all, such a framework already exists – namely the Energy Charter Treaty, which was established after the fall of the Soviet Union to provide investment protection for western energy companies.

European utilities are confronting fears that penny-pinching, debt-ridden customers may stop paying their bills when the recession really starts to bite.

RWE, Germany’s second biggest utility, said this month that an increase in household bad debt was partly to blame for a 26 per cent decline in annual operating earnings to €534m at Npower, its UK unit.

It warned that the UK recession is “causing bad debt to rise across all customer segments”, contributing to its expectations of a “significantly” lower operating result this year.

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