* Deadline for Ukraine gas payment expires at midnight
* Ukrainian energy minister to debate reverse flows
* EU officials say gas storage around half-full
By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS, April 7 EU officials will meet
Ukraine's energy minister on Tuesday as well as review the
bloc's own gas storage levels as fears grow that rising tensions
between Moscow and Kiev might lead to a cut-off of gas supplies.
At midnight a deadline expires for Ukraine to reduce the
$2.2 billion debt it owes Moscow for natural gas deliveries. So
far Ukraine has offered no payments, Moscow says, raising the
risk of supply disruption, with possible knock-on effects for
the European Union.
Ukraine imports around half of its gas needs from Russia,
and the European Union meets a third of its demand through
imports from Russia, with 40 percent of that gas flowing through
EU officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said
Ukraine Energy Minister Yuri Prodan would meet EU Energy
Commissioner Guenther Oettinger on Tuesday.
Oettinger has been trying to broker a deal with Slovakia to
allow Ukraine to receive up to 8 billion cubic metres a year in
a reverse flow of gas from Slovakia.
The officials also confirmed that a meeting of the bloc's
gas coordination group would take place on Tuesday but played
down its significance. They said stocks were comfortable and
that the meeting was not an emergency session.
"It's just to take stock," one official said.
The published 2014 schedule for the gas coordination group
lists meetings only for Feb. 14, May 22, Sept. 16 and Dec. 11.
The talks coincide with a deepening crisis between Russia
Pro-Russia activists occupying a regional government
building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, on Monday proclaimed
the creation of a separatist Donetsk republic, prompting
Ukraine's interim president to say Moscow had entered a "second
stage" of operations aimed at breaking up Ukraine.
East Ukraine is one of Europe's most important natural gas
supply hubs, where Russia's main pipelines enter Ukraine for
domestic use as well as for transit to the European Union.
Also on Monday, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE said Russia
had amassed tens of thousands of troops near the border with
Ukraine, calling on Moscow to take steps to de-escalate the
Official Commission figures show EU gas storage levels of
around 36 billion cubic metres, roughly half full, and analysts
said that a short-lived Russian supply cut would be met by
reserves and alternative supplies.
The EU's gas coordination group, which brings together
energy experts from the 28 EU member states, was set up in
response to previous pricing rows between Russia and Ukraine,
which raised concerns about EU supply security.
It met in March, when officials from some EU countries, such
as Poland and Greece, said they were worried they could face gas
shortages and economic damage if Russia stopped pumping gas to
However, they also said most nations were amply supplied
after a very mild winter.
Oettinger said last month that a reverse-flow pipeline deal
to ship gas from Slovakia to Ukraine could be agreed before the
end of April. But progress has been slow, Ukraine says.
"We have still had no response from the Slovak side on our
proposal to send a group of experts to the Kapushany gas station
in a bid to see how we can perform the reverse," Ukraine's
Prodan told reporters in Kiev.
"Slovakia is simply proposing to us to sign a memorandum
which provides for the construction of a pipeline and to invest
about 20 million euros within a term of 10 months," he added.
"We want to go and see whether we can carry out the reverse flow
without such significant costs."
During the visit to Brussels on Tuesday, the delegation from
Ukraine will also attend a round-table session on security of
supply with representatives of the gas industry.
A copy of an invitation to industry, seen by Reuters, says
Oettinger invites "relevant gas companies for a frank and open
discussion" to contribute to EU energy security for the next
winter and over the mid-term. In particular, it cites the
importance of including liquefied natural gas operators.
(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in London and Pavel
Polityuk in Kiev; editing by Jane Baird)