Seaborne exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Barcelona to Italy rose 17-fold in 2022 from the prior year, while shipments in the first two months of 2023 alone accounted for 45% of last year's traffic, Barcelona's port data showed

The dramatic increase underscores how Spain has become a significant gas supplier in Europe as Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted countries to reduce their reliance on Russian gas. Italy was one of the most dependent countries, with gas from Russia making up 40% of its total prior to the war.

Spain's Energy Ministry announced last year the launch of a "virtual gas pipeline" to increase LNG shipments from Spain - mainly Barcelona - to Italy using small ships compatible with Italy’s western terminals of Panigaglia and Livorno.

Spain does not produce natural gas but with six LNG terminals, the largest number in the European Union, has positioned itself as a supply hub for the rest of the bloc. Tankers unload LNG at the terminals and then part of it is re-exported by other vessels.

The Spanish energy ministry has not disclosed traffic figures. But the Barcelona port, which has the EU's largest regasification plant, shared its export data with Reuters.

Seaborne LNG exports from Barcelona totaled 316,831 tonnes in 2022, rising 36.5% from 2021, with Italy accounting for 61% of last year's traffic.

LNG exports to Italy evolved from zero in 2020 to 11,391 tonnes in 2021, and soared 1,608% to 194,574 tonnes in 2022.

In January and February of this year, exports to Italy stood at 89,222 tonnes, almost half the volume of all of 2022.

Since July 2022, there have been 113 ship re-loadings of LNG at Spain's six terminals, with 42 of those having Italy as a destination, a spokesperson for Spanish grid operator Enagas , which manages the terminals, said.

Out of the shipments, 36 have been from Barcelona, it added.

Robert Songer, LNG analyst at consulting firm ICIS, attributed the Barcelona-Italy traffic spike to the Ukraine war.

"Clearly, Italy is one of the countries that has most to lose from the lack of pipeline gas flows from Russia," he said in an emailed response, adding that Italy had also increased gas supply from Algeria and was developing more LNG terminals.

"The so-called virtual pipeline is useful as it brings small terminals like Panigaglia into play more, but it cannot really play more than a small part of the solution to the question of lost Russian gas flows," he added.

Elio Ruggeri, LNG chief at Italian gas grid operator Snam , said roughly 30 out of 80 LNG cargoes received at Panigaglia since January 2022 had been from Spain, with forward market price dynamics suggesting the trend would continue for the coming quarters.

In 2022, Spain was Europe's second-largest importer after France of LNG - totaling 29.5 billion cubic metres (Bcm), mainly from the United States, according to data compiled by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Spain re-exported last year 1.76 Bcm of LNG, with Italy (0.71 Bcm) and the Netherlands (0.59 bcm) on top, the data showed.