UK Security of Gas Supply: The little matter of distance

Setting aside any politics, there are four good reasons to focus on the security of UK natural gas supply

  1.  Technical
  2. Climate
  3. Financial
  4. Political

This post is about number one:  Keeping gas physically flowing. Technical is essentially a network question.  According to BP figures released last year, the 2015 end consumption of the UK was 68.3 billion cubic metres and pipeline imports were 29BCM (25.7 Norway, 3.1 Netherlands, 0.2 Belgium) and 12.8 LNG ( Qatar 11.9, Algeria 0.4 Trinidad 0.4). This doesn’t mean however that 43.8 of the 68.3 means that the UK is 64 % dependent on imports. Yet.

The International Energy Agency has a slightly different  take for 2015, but less granular view of sources. They had a gross consumption of  72 BCM , 45 BCM of imports, but also 14BCM of exports.  How can the UK import and export at the same time?

That’s partially down to LNG imports in 2015, when Qatari imports went from Wales to the continent via the Bacton interconnections in Norfolk.  At the same time, some Norwegian gas goes to Europe via Bacton too.  One must also understand that in a continental gas market, molecules get traded across borders. The volume of gas traded is well over 20 times the amount used.  That does make it very hard to understand to understand the issue of networks when it’s also combined with trading instrument even harder to comprehend.

This year for example, more gas is being imported via pipeline from Europe.  Much of that gas was originally from Gazprom via Nord Stream, but then swapped with Danish gas .  Confused?  Join the club.  The routing is vey simple compared to US LNG not ending up in North West Europe (which includes the UK, at least for now), but going to India instead.  Or the nuttiest trades of all, where Dubai, close enough to be connected by pipeline to Abu Dhabi bought US gas from Texas. Even earlier this year, we had Norwegian LNG gas move to Belgium, then get shipped a day across the Channel. There it was unloaded and then put back on another ship which then went to Egypt.

Returning to the UK though, we do have the ultimate issue of using 70 BCM as we only produce 41 or 55% of what we used.  It makes detecting the carbon footprint of UK gas hard to discover but that’s an issue for next time.

For now, we have to think of natural gas as an operational issue.  Natural gas has one key problem globally, but one that’s non- existent in the UK. Its the lowest carbon fossil fuel, but moving it around, while getting easier, is still much harder than coal and oil.  The UK’s great advantage resides in how we already have both the market and the network to deliver it.  I often say people think electricity comes out of the wall, and  gas would defeat those consumers entirely.  Many people don’t even know where their central heating is, or sometimes even what fuel they use. For them warmth comes out of the sky. It’s only a small step from thinking energy falls out the sky to wishing to keep it under the ground.

This is yet another “success” of natural gas.  Gas is so completely trouble free that it incongruously makes selling the case to produce it so hard.  I started out in gas marketing, which was essentially order taking with an occasional haggling over price. I had millions of customers directly or indirectly,  and yet, unlike in electricity,  I could count on two hands the number of them who ever physically lost gas supply. Compare that to the number of times that 100% of customers have had their electricity fail for minutes, hours or even days.

Gas supply is only interrupted by extraneous acts of God via flooding (and rarely then these days) or the less divine intervention caused by what we used to call “idiot with JCB” (a UK brand of backhoe).

Accidents to pipelines anywhere on the planet are literally years apart.  In Europe the most severe case ever was in Belgium in 2004:

A huge gas explosion in Belgium has killed 15 people and injured 120, many of them with serious burns. 

The blast, at an industrial park about 30km (20 miles) south-west of Brussels, sent flames shooting into the air, and was felt over a wide area.

That too was sadly caused during construction of a car park.

More serious, although less fatal with 8 deaths was the extremely rare failure of a a pipeline itself at San Bruno in California in 2010. The cause of that was a combination of outdated record keeping from the 1956 construction and bad pipe welds nearby.

Returning to the UK,  we are at the end of the line in a huge network that physically extends thousands of miles. Although the risk is very tiny,  multiplying distance multiplies physical, climate and political risk.

Sustainable energy is local energy. Or that’s at least what renewable advocates often say

No one would support importing milk or eggs.  Banning local gas production should be equally , well, unsustainable. It may make people feel good locally. But if opponents truly think globally, the climate impacts of importing natural gas, the next subject  in this series, they should have free range egg on their faces.


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