Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Where's that gas coming from?

Britain is an island of coal set in a sea of oil and gas

The sentiment above has driven much of the UK's energy policy over the past 40 years, since North Sea gas first started flowing at the end of the 1960s. But no more; Britain became a net importer of energy in 2011 and its conventional gas reserves are drying up alarmingly fast. Data from DECC, the Department of Energy & Climate Change shows that production in 2011 (the last available full year) was 21% lower than in 2010, and that for the first three quarters of 2012 shows a continuing decline. So where is (or should) the gas be coming from?

Oddly, it is largely from the near continent, with over 50% of gas imports from the Norwegian North Sea, and almost 15% from Belgium and the Netherlands (although some of this may ultimately have come from Russia). The balance of around a third is from liquified natural gas (LNG) and, perhaps surprisingly, this has been declining. Energy flows are always difficult to analyse, but it appears that higher demand for gas in Asia has raised prices in Qatar, which in 2010 was the largest single supplier of LNG into the UK, using ships that the one shown here.
© Knut Helge Schistad

Britain continues to get LNG from North Africa - notwithstanding recent difficulties in Algeria - as the recession in Southern Europe reduces demand there.

In one sense this is to be welcomed; LNG has significantly higher emissions than piped natural gas, largely due to the energy used in the compression of the gas (but also due to some needed for decompression, and the fuel oil used by ships bringing the LNG to the UK from Qatar). But it also shows a risk: when a Norwegian pipeline (Langeled) was recently out of commission due to a power cut, prices spiked and the UK was temporarily suffering a significant shortfall of supply. In the third quarter of 2012 this one pipeline provided 33.6TWh of gas, compared to total national consumption of 65.5TWh. As always, diversity of supply is important for security, especially as Norwegian production has also peaked.

So is shale gas the answer? Almost certainly not in the UK for other environmental considerations, although the development of US shale resources has lowered global gas supplies as they too are importing less LNG. Going back to coal is not an option either, for both CO2 and practical reasons (although it is sad that an underground fire has led to the loss of the UK's largest remaining coal mine). I am afraid that the real answer in the longer term is that we still need to cut demand, through greater energy efficiency, and to support this with other offshore technologies - wind, tide and wave. So finally we may one day be able to say:

Britain is an island of efficiency set in a sea of wind and waves