Can Europe ever break its reliance on Russian gas?
The problem? Russia's invasion of Ukraine and fears that the crisis could prompt Russia to turn off the gas taps to its eastern European neighbour, hence blocking off one of the major transit routes for gas to the rest of the European Union (EU).
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has insisted that supplies to the continent will not be disrupted, regardless of the political situation. But with Europe placing more and more sanctions on Russia, relations between the two are looking increasingly shaky.
Around 30 per cent of the EU's gas comes from Russia and half of that flows through Ukraine, so if the dispute continues there could be a serious supply shortage, particularly in those nations close to the Russian border that are totally or almost totally reliant on gas from Moscow.
And of course, there is also the impact on pricing. Gas prices for delivery during the winter have already been creeping up in recent months and according to Reuters, consultancy group Energy Aspects believes prices could double if transit flows through Ukraine are cut.
So can Europe reduce its reliance on Russian gas and ensure security of supplies in the future? Or will it always be heavily dependent on the largest country in the world to heat its homes and fire up its power stations?
A focus on energy efficiency
One of the obvious ways to reduce demand for gas imports, whether from Russia or elsewhere, is to reduce overall energy consumption, and that can come through improvements in energy efficiency across the continent.
According to a report by the Institute for Public and Policy Research (IPPR), the EU's dependence on Russian gas could be cut significantly if energy efficiency was given higher priority by member states.
The European Commission has set a target to improve energy efficiency by 30 per cent by 2030, and the IPPR claims that if achieved this would allow gas imports to be cut by 23 per cent.
A bigger improvement of 35 per cent could result in a 33 per cent drop in imports, while a 40 per cent improvement could lead to a 40 per cent reduction and have the added benefits of economic growth and higher employment.
Investments in renewable energy
Another way to make Europe less reliant on Russian gas, and indeed gas overall, is to invest more heavily in renewable energy, and this is something else the IPPR report advocates.
It cites figures from the European Commission which show that €30 billion worth of gas imports are already avoided every year as a result of renewable energy generation. Expanding capacity will only increase this sum further.
According to the latest available statistics, energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, tidal and biogas accounted for 14.1 per cent of the EU's overall energy consumption in 2012, up from 8.4 per cent in 2004.
The European Commission currently has a renewables target of 27 per cent for 2030 but is facing calls from the European Council to increase this to 30 per cent, while industry groups want the target to be binding.
A commitment to fracking
Strong opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has meant that so far Europe has resisted exploiting its own shale gas reserves. Yet the Ukraine crisis is prompting many member states to look again at the possibility of saying yes to this controversial gas extraction technique.
There is believed to be 13 trillion cubic metres of shale gas beneath European soil, which, according to a chart published by Bloomberg, based on data from the US Energy Information Agency, is enough to free the EU from reliance on Russian gas for almost 30 years.
However, even if the bloc embraces fracking in the way that the US has, it is a shift that will take time. There is strong resistance from both environmental groups and members of the public, and there are also several political and regulatory hurdles to jump.
What's more, fracking alone will not be the answer. It will have to be part of a bigger energy strategy that includes investment in renewables and energy efficiency improvements. Even then Europe may still need to import some of its gas.
Other export markets
It has been suggested that the EU replace some of the gas it imports from Russia with gas supplies from other parts of the world. So where could it look?
Well the Middle East is an obvious candidate, as a large proportion of imports already come from the region. However, frequent conflicts also tend to ramp up prices and threaten disruption of supplies from this part of the world, so it doesn't really make sense.
There are other options, including the United States where fracking has led to a boom in shale gas production in recent years. But it could be very difficult, not to mention expensive, to start importing more gas from across the pond.
And after all, the aim is to ensure energy security for the EU, which means reducing dependency on imports from all parts of the world, not just Russia. Diversifying gas supplies wouldn't really be solving the problem.
Independence from Russian gas a long way off
No matter how much progress Europe makes in reducing its energy usage and finding new sources of energy, the fact is that independence from Russian gas will not come overnight. In fact, some believe it is unlikely to come for a long time.
The International Energy Agency's chief executive Maria van der Hoeven said recently that in reality, there are few options for Europe when it comes to sourcing gas outside of Russia.
"In the short term, Europe has very, very little means to diversify its gas imports," she told the Wall Street Journal. "As far as we can see, Russian gas will be needed in Europe."
Massimo Di-Odorado, a principal analyst at energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, agrees. He believes Europe will be turning to Russia for gas for some time to come.
"Russian gas remains competitive against other alternatives and will continue to be the cornerstone of European gas supply," he remarked. "Our long term view is that the Europe-Russia gas relationship will continue out of necessity."
So while the end goal remains to reduce reliance on Moscow for gas supplies, the challenge in the short term will be for EU member states to maintain their energy relationship with Russia while distancing themselves politically, and it could be a very delicate balance to strike.