Western Europe is far from lacking in natural gas. Its gas reserves are much greater than its oil reserves with regard to their energy content, and its gas production covers nearly three-quarters of its own needs, as opposed to only one-third for crude oil. Western European gas reserves are thus an important asset in the security of its energy supplies.
However, most of the increase in European gas reserves over the last fifteen years has come from offshore discoveries, mainly in the North Sea. This zone now contains 60% of the proven reserves and accounts for nearly half of gas production in Western Europe.
This trend will continue in the coming decades, with increasing difficulties in the development and exploitation of new resources, whether due to the water depth or to the increasing distance between consumption regions and recent discoveries. Therefore, the new generation of fields in the North Sea will necessarily call for new technological developments far in advance of the techniques now mastered.
The experience gained during the development of giant fields (Frigg, Troll) together with the studies carried out for the exploitation of marginal fields make up the basis for current research routes, which have been redirected in keeping with the economic situation. In addition to the optimization of proven concepts aiming at greater process integration, new technological developments will aim at both multiphase concepts and subsea implementation. The production of "frontier" gas resources and hence the development of new technologies are the price that Europe will have to pay to limit its dependence on gas imports.
Europe is quite well endowed with natural gas when the area of its sedimentary basins is considered Likewise, it is appreciably richer in natural gas than in crude oil:
in volume, with the equivalent of 5 GtOE of proven reserves for natural gas as against 3 GtOE for crude oil;
in the number of years of reserves at the current production rate, with 40 years for natural gas as against 24 for crude oil.
The same comparison proves favorable to natural gas in terms of ultimate remaining resources (probably 15 GtOE for gas as against 9 GtOE for oil), rate of depletion of estimated original ultimate resources or, more simply, if we consider the number of countries having significant reserves in Western Europe.
The increase in gas reserves in Western Europe, the specific qualities of gas as a fuel and raw material, its competitiveness compared to other energy sources and the considerable development of gas infrastructures have all led to its rapid penetration into the European energy market. It now accounts for 16% of the primary energy demand in Western Europe as opposed to 6% in 1970. This places gas in a median position behind coal and crude oil, but far ahead of nuclear and renewable energy sources (Table 1).
Western Europe makes widespread use of fossil energy sources, which account for about 82% of its energy demand, and a large share of this energy has to be imported. However, natural gas is the least dependent of these sources on outside supplies.