The day we nearly ran out of gas

Updated: 

Gas burner

It has emerged that in March this year we were closer to running out of gas than anyone suspected. One official has confirmed that at one stage we had just six hours of supply left.

So how did it happen, and could it happen again?

Running out

Reports at the time estimated that we could have as little as 36-hours-worth of gas left in the reserves. However, Rob Hastings, energy and infrastructure director at the Crown Estate, has confirmed in an interview that in fact there were only six-hours-worth of supplies left.

He told the Financial Times that if the levels had fallen any further it would have caused interruptions in the supply.

Why?

The crisis was largely a result of unexpectedly cold weather. It means that far more people put the heating on than the experts had predicted, so stocks were eroded very quickly.

At the same time, Sky reported that there were problems with a processing plant in Norway which provides gas via a pipeline to the UK. Meanwhile, the pipeline under the sea between the UK and Belgium shut down unexpectedly. It meant we had to rely on stored gas - and that started to run out.

Could it happen again?

The risks remain. The problem is two-fold. First, we only produce about 45% of all the gas we need, so we rely on imports. This relies on the technology of supply working, and is also dependent on a lack of political interference. Previous issues regarding the Russian pipeline raised awareness of just how much we depend on a peaceful political balance for energy.

Second, we just don't have much storage capacity in the UK. According to the Daily Mail we can store enough for 20 days. This compares to Italy which can store enough for 70 days, France which can store enough for 103 days, and the US, where stores could last six months.

This isn't as bad as it sounds. We will only call on those stores if all other supplies dry up. We import gas from a variety of different places, so we would be very unlucky to lose it all at the same time. In addition, we still have domestically-produced gas, so stocks will last far longer than 20 days even in the worst case scenario.

However, this lack of storage does leave us very much more vulnerable than other countries to interruptions of supply from overseas.

We came very close to interruptions in the gas supply in March. How long before we have to get used to the very real threat of running out of gas?

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