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Bundesrat confirms measures to secure gas supply

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Green light also given for amended corona regulations, housing non-profit law and reform of upper secondary schools

Vienna (PF) – The Federal Council today gave its approval for further legal measures to secure gas supplies in Austria. These include the connection of the Haidach gas storage facility to the Austrian gas grid and the official withdrawal of unused storage capacities. In addition, €100 million per year will be made available to companies by 2025 to promote the phase-out of Russian natural gas. Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler welcomed the confirmations by the Chamber of States, saying they brought the country one step closer to an independent and secure energy supply.

On the health front, the Lands Chamber gave the green light to an amendment to the Epidemic Law and the COVID-19 Measures Law, which will bring changes to contact tracing and traffic restrictions, among other things. An extension of special Corona regulations in the Narcotic Substances Act and the Social Security Acts also passed the Upper House. There was also approval for the legal anchoring of the specialist dentist for orthodontics.

The last parliamentary hurdle was cleared by an amendment to the law on non-profit housing to prevent speculation in non-profit housing. A collective amendment to several school laws, including a reform of the upper school, was also approved by the Upper House.

However, the opposition parties’ motions for resolutions did not receive a majority in the Bundesrat.

Amendment to the Gas Industry Act, withdrawal from Russian natural gas to be supported with €100 million per year

The amendment to the Gas Industry Act, which was unanimously adopted in the Upper House, also received the required two-thirds majority in the Upper House. This means that all storage facilities in Austria, including those in Haidach, are now obliged to be connected to the Austrian pipeline system. Unused storage capacities must be offered or returned by the storage user without delay. In the event of serious violations, storage companies may lose their rights as such. This is the case, for example, if at least 10% of the storage capacity is not filled by July 1 of the year.

In addition, €100 million will be made available in each of the years 2022 to 2025 as compensation for the additional costs incurred by companies when withdrawing from Russian natural gas. The relevant Gas Diversification Act 2022 was confirmed by a majority of the mandataries today. It is aimed at natural gas diversification and the conversion of plants to alternative operation using other energy sources. This involves, for example, the costs incurred by companies for pipeline rights when transporting natural gas of non-Russian origin to Austria. The subsidies are also intended to cover additional costs for the use of non-Russian natural gas, provided that this does not replace climate-friendly, renewable energy sources or district heating. In addition, the conversion of energy generation plants in industry and the energy sector is to be promoted.

By contrast, a motion for a resolution tabled by the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) was rejected by a majority, in which it called for a ban on the installation of gas heating systems in new buildings from January 1, 2023, while at the same time promoting cost-effective alternatives.

In principle, it is a matter of becoming more independent of fossil energy and Russian gas, but the question arises as to why this is only happening now, Günther Novak (SPÖ/K) stated. The situation is serious, which is why quick action is necessary. In this context, Novak missed the presentation of a climate protection and energy efficiency law. With regard to the gas diversification law, the SPÖ mandatary stressed that this would give the climate protection minister an “almost blank check”, as the ministry could set the funding guidelines itself.

Eduard Köck (ÖVP/N) emphasized that the decision on a gas industry law was an unusual measure in an unusual time. He said the government was showing “enormous leadership to prepare us for a Russian gas supply freeze.” At the same time, he said, it was the order of the day to push for a wide range of measures to save energy and switch to renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, water and biomass.

Michael Bernard (FPÖ/N) saw it differently. The FPÖ mandatary called the support of the sanctions against Russia “irresponsible” and spoke of “sanction impact laws.” For example, the gas diversification law would “squander” €400 million, as the gas would still have to be paid for due to the long-term supply contracts with Russia. In addition, fracking gas would also be financed with the subsidies.

Since he considers a gas supply stop on the part of Russia to be realistic, it is all the more important to connect all gas storage facilities to the Austrian network, explained Adi Gross (Greens/V). This would bring us one step closer to the 80% filling target. According to Gross, it is also essential that Europe acts in solidarity in the crisis. Therefore, at least an agreement on the pan-European supply of the protected customers, i.e. also of all households, is needed. The Gas Diversification Act should also help to ensure that higher prices are not passed on to customers, said the Green Party mandate holder.

With today’s decisions, we have come one step closer to an independent and secure energy supply, emphasized Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler. In the short term, she said, the goal is to secure the filling of gas storage facilities “so that people can get through the winter safely.” At the same time, she said, there is a need to continuously reduce dependence on Russian gas, as Russia is not a reliable partner and uses gas supplies as a “weapon.”

COVID-19: Changes to contact tracing and traffic restrictions

The Bundesrat gave a majority green light to an amendment to the Epidemics Act and the COVID-19 Measures Act. This will lead to changes in contact tracing, for example. In the future, health authorities are to be allowed to restrict and prioritize case clarification – but only if they cannot objectively cope with the effort, for example during peaks of infection waves. Another new feature is that the minister of health will in future be able to impose general traffic restrictions by decree in order to prevent outright segregation. In addition, the legal basis is created for a reminder letter for the booster vaccination against COVID-19.

The FPÖ was unable to find a majority for its motion introduced during the debate, with which they wanted to ensure that the COVID-19 Measures Act would cease to apply as of July 8.

The Bundesrat also approved by majority vote amendments to the Narcotic Substances Act aimed at extending a special Corona regulation regarding permanent substitution prescriptions for a further time until June 30, 2023. An amendment to the ASVG and other social insurance laws also passed the Upper House by a majority vote. Under the amendment, family pharmacies are to receive a flat fee of €15 for dispensing COVID-19 medicines by the end of the year. The provision and reimbursement of Corona vaccinations by physicians in private practice will also be extended until the end of December 2022.

There was unanimous approval for the legal anchoring of the specialist dentist for orthodontics. An amendment to the Dentists Act will establish a separate professional title and define the training requirements. Since this also entails new tasks for the professional chamber, the Dental Chamber Act will also be amended.

Green light for amendment to prevent speculation in non-profit housing and reform of upper secondary schools

The Bundesrat also gave a majority green light for an amendment to the Housing Non-profit Act to prevent speculation in non-profit housing. Measures are also planned to strengthen the auditing of non-profit building associations.

As part of a collective amendment to several school laws, a majority of the Upper House also voted in favor of reforming the upper school. It is planned to switch to the so-called semestralized upper cycle for all middle and upper secondary schools from 2023/2024. However, the choice of organizational form is up to the schools, which can decide autonomously whether to introduce the system or stick with the year-round form. Other measures relate to expanded design options in the area of curricula, the transfer of tested school experiments to the regular school system, greater flexibility in the system of elective subjects, the establishment of alternative forms of teaching and learning, and needs-based support measures.

Two other motions for resolutions tabled by the SPÖ and FPÖ during the debate remained in the minority. The FPÖ wanted to call on the Minister of Education to ensure that the Bachbauer school bus stop near the Gaismaier housing estate on the B159 is retained. In its motion, the SPÖ called for a school package that would ensure high-quality school operations starting in the fall. It should include not only posts for teachers but also Corona safety concepts. Federal Councilor Andreas Lackner (Greens/St) used his speaking time on education issues to bid farewell to the provincial chamber. He is moving to the Styrian state parliament. (Conclusion Federal Council) med/kar

NOTE: Sessions of the National Council and the Federal Council can also be followed via livestream and are available as video-on-demand in the parliament’s media library.

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