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Rough gas storage site cleared to start filling up within weeks

·4-min read
The Rough gas storage site is due to reopen after closing in 2017 - Centrica
The Rough gas storage site is due to reopen after closing in 2017 - Centrica

Britain’s biggest gas storage facility has been cleared to reopen by safety inspectors in a move that will allow it to start filling up for the winter within weeks.

Centrica, the owner of British Gas, is poised to begin pumping natural gas into the Rough storage site at the start of September after securing approval from the Health and Safety Executive.

It means the only remaining obstacles to reopening Rough are an agreement between Centrica and the Government on state support and final consents from the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), which are not seen as problematic.

A Whitehall source on Monday said government officials and Centrica are aiming to conclude their talks in time for the company to begin filling up Rough in little more than a fortnight.

The facility has not been used for storage since 2017, but Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, asked for it to be brought out of retirement to help bolster UK energy security.

His request followed warnings that Europe is facing one of its toughest heating seasons for decades, with Russia throttling gas pipelines to the Continent and a growing prospect of industrial rationing.

Against that backdrop, Rough, which sits 18 miles off the coast of Yorkshire under the North Sea, could provide Britain with extra supplies at crucial moments.

The facility can hold enough gas to meet winter demand for around 10 days when full, although it is only expected to return at around one quarter of its capacity this winter.

Centrica had previously claimed Rough was at the end of its “design life” five years ago and could not be operated safely, with doubts about the integrity of several of its wells.

Since then, it has been operating only as a production facility, with the company drawing down what gas remained inside and selling it to the market.

However, Centrica said it was now able to reopen Rough for storage by doing so in stages.

A spokesman said: “The safe operation of Rough is always our main priority.

“We have operated this asset for decades and know it very well. Significant investment in the asset has continued following the decision to cease storage in 2017.

“The main reason we could return Rough is that we would increase its capacity in phases, ahead of each winter, so that we can carry out any required work to allow capacity to be increased safely.”

That approach has now been signed off by the Health and Safety Executive.

A spokesman for the agency said: “Offshore gas installations must have an accepted document known as a safety case to operate.

“We’ve been made aware of changes to the safety case for the Rough B Offshore Installation, we have assessed these and they have been accepted.”

Centrica had already been granted licences and temporary waivers by the NSTA and energy regulator Ofgem, although it still requires two technical consents from the former.

To secure those, it must submit a gas storage development plan for approval and then obtain official consent to store gas, a spokesman for the NSTA said.

Rough accounted for around 70pc of the UK’s storage capacity before its closure, with the facility able to hold about 3.4bn cubic metres of natural gas.

In addition, about 5bn cubic metres of “cushion gas” was kept inside to help maintain pressure.

Centrica’s site will bring far less than this back into use, with the company thought to be aiming for Rough to build up around 800 million cubic metres of gas for this winter and 1.7bn for the next.

That would still be a substantial increase on current levels of UK gas storage, however, which only amount to 1.6 bn cubic metres in total.

It is thought that Centrica stands to make hundreds of millions of pounds from releasing gas to the market this winter, when spot prices are expected to surge higher.

However, talks about state support concern the longer-term future of the facility, as the difference between summer and winter prices may narrow again if the energy crisis passes.

Both the company and the Government are also understood to be supportive of eventually repurposing the facility to store hydrogen, rather than natural gas.

Centrica said it was in constructive dialogue with officials but declined to comment further.