Russian dependence eased as UK receives gas early from Norway

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The Independent Online

The UK will become less reliant on Russian gas when a new Norwegian pipeline becomes operational earlier than expected.

Gas will start flowing to Britain from Ormen Lange, Western Europe's largest field, by next month. The pipeline had not been expected to be working until October. Test flows will begin this week.

The Langeled pipeline, which feeds into the UK at Easington in the North-east, becomes the world's largest subsea pipeline at 745 miles long and is large enough to supply a fifth of the UK's peak gas demand.

Britain is now a net importer of gas as its North Sea reserves dwindle. By the end of the decade, half of the gas consumed in this country will have to be imported, much of it originating from Russia.

Centrica, owner of British Gas and operator of the Easington terminal, has already signed a £5bn contract with Norwegian energy group Statoil to supply customers with gas.

The National Grid and government ministers are lobbying Statoil over the destination of another pipeline that the Norwegians plan to build and have in operation by 2012. The UK is competing with Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to receive gas from the Troll field, which could double Norwegian gas exports to this country. Statoil will decide next month which country will be the destination.

Centrica is pressing for more investment in the UK's energy infrastructure. Two years ago, before the first stage of the Langeled pipeline, and another from the Netherlands, were built, the UK had the highest gas prices in Europe, damaging the competitiveness of British business.

UK gas prices have since halved and the new pipeline opening next month will help to keep bills lower in the short term. But analysts warned that this winter will be a test of how well the UK's pipelines work together as the country gets used to being an importer of gas.

Craig Lowry, the head of energy markets at consultancy EIC, said: "There is a big question mark over how much gas will be delivered on any specific day. No one has seen how all these sources of imports interact with each other. It could lead to volatile wholesale gas prices. It's a situation that the UK has never faced before."