A project costing £600 million has been approved by the U.K. government to store 1.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas in 19 salt caverns some 15 miles offshore to the south west of Barrow-in-Furness, once a renowned shipbuilding port. Britain is especially vulnerable to a shortage of gas-supplies and has only 15 days worth of reserve capacity. In comparison, France has 122 days worth and Germany 99 days spare. The undersea facility will be connected via a pipeline to an onshore gas-compression station in Morecambe, and it will serve much as a "gasometer", since gas will be pumped into into when demand is low and drawn-off to the national grid at times of peak demand. The scheme will allow us an additional 5 days worth of reserve gas.
Construction is set to begin next year, and the gas-store is predicted to be fully functional by 2014. The caverns are not natural but are to be created artificially in the layers of salt-strata that lie under the Irish sea. It is the first time that the strategy, which has proven safe in on-shore locations, has been used offshore. One advantage of having 19 separate caverns is that the facility is less vulnerable to acts of terrorism, although presumably the pipeline could be blown-up if someone had the wish and determination to do so.
In view of the current disruption of gas-supplies from Russia to Europe via Ukraine, securing greater storage capacity for Britain is seen as sensible, although the U.K. only gets around 3% of its gas from Russia, the rest coming from Norway, the North Sea (while it continues to produce), and in liquefied from from Qatar, which is stored in huge gas terminals in Kent and soon at a new facility at Milford Haven in west Wales.
All of this is as noted going to cost money and Sir John Harman, a former labour council leader and chairman of the Environment Agency for 8 years until last last summer, has produced a Fabian Society pamphlet "The Green Crunch" which accuses politicians of being "badly out-of-touch with reality", and in which he writes, "It is extremely unlikely that we will ever get back to the retail energy prices of the past 15 years or so. Yet I do not think this fact is being presented squarely to the electorate nor would it be an obvious vote-winner to do so. We need to acknowledge that there is, in a civilized society, a right to expect affordable access to warmth, light and the other benefits which energy delivers and that this can only be protected as prices rise by intervention, either in the energy markets or through the welfare system."
Sir John accuses politicians of failing to be honest with people about the costs of developing and delivering new forms of clean energy, as Britain bears the costs of converting to a low-carbon economy. He also calls for measures to combat fuel poverty, through price controls, subsidies or higher state benefits to prevent the creation of a new class of low-carbon poor.
Notwithstanding this fine socialist rhetoric, the impact of peak oil and more immediately "gap-oil" will act so ruinously on the economies of this country and the world that it is debatable what level of welfare funding will prevail in the next decade. The readjustment of life to a lower-energy economy may well force down the price of energy because we are using far less of it, but those accepted comforts of civilization will similarly be a thing of the past along with the cheap energy that has underpinned and driven such manners of progress since the end of the second world war.