The recent revelation that the world's largest offshore deposit of natural gas had been discovered off the Norwegian coast has signaled what many energy analysts perceive as a significant change in the composition of Western Europe's energy picture.
It means, the analysts say, that the European Community (EC), which now depends on three uncertain suppliers -- Algeria, Iran, and Libya -- for more than 50 percent of its imported natural gas needs, will be assured of satisfying its rising thirst for gas.
Much of the new Norwegian discovery -- put at between 800 billion and 1.6 trillion cubic meters of proven reserves in the so- called Block 31-2 section of the North Sea 70 miles west of Bergen -- will wind up heating homes and replacing oil in other ways throughout the EC.
EC Energy Commissioner Guido Brunner recently pointed out that Western Europe , which is expected to fill some 20 percent of its primary energy requirements with natural gas by 1985 (up from 13 percent in 1973), will be forced to import 38 percent of its gas from non-EC countries by 1985 and almost 50 percent by 1990.
Commissioner Brunner's staff of energy wizards here explain that the Netherlands, the world's largest exporter of natural gas, has in recent years been furnishings its fellow EC-member countries with aobut half of their natural gas needs. Just this summer, the Netherlands decided to cut back sharply its shipments abroad and keep as much as possible of its huge -- and increasingly valuable -- proven reserves (some 1.74 trillion cubic meters in 1979) to itself.
The virtual withdrawal of the Dutch from the natural-gas-exporting business will leave a massive hole in the supply picture of the rest of Western Europe. Norway -- already the second largest non-EC supplier (behind Algeria) to the EC -- is certain to step in and fill a large part of the vacuum. The Norwegian government has set a spring 1981 deadline for deciding whether to link its North Sea gas pipelines to other European networks. The Block 31-2 discovery has made an affirmative decision almost a foregone conclusion.
Even before the discovery, the EC commission had launched an intensive campaign aimed at convincing Europeans gas companies to diversify their sources of foreigh natural gas supplies, and to conclude more contracts with Norway in particular. Gas imported into the EC now comes from Algeria (41.9 percent), Norway (24 percent), the Soviet Union (17.5 percent), Iran (7.4 percent), Nigeria (6.8 percent) and Libya (2.4 percent).
Early last year the EC commission forecast an enormous increase in imports of Algerian natural gas between now and 1990. Libya would hold its shipments at about current levels, the commission said in a report. The Soviet Union would increase its share only slightly. And Norway -- more than a year ago and well before the recent Block 31-2 discovery -- was forecast to nearly triple its deliveries this decade -- mainly from its offshore Frigg field near Stavanger.
But the situation has changed dramatically since early 1979, and Norway will benefit. In the past year most EC countries, especially the Netherlands and France, have experienced serious and perhaps ominous disruptions in promised deliveries from Algeria. "Some long-term contracts [20-25 years]," an EC commission official says flatly, referring to Algeria, "can no longer be regarded as firm." Iranian shipments, which last year were forecast to jump from near zero in 1978 to 10 billion cubic meters per year by 1990, are now considered "uncertain," too.
Over the next 10 years, the EC, according to commission analysts, can be expected to turn away from Algeria, Libya, and Iran for its supplies of non-EC natural gas and increasingly toward not only Norway but also the Soviet Union (already a substantial source), the Middle East, and Nigeria.
Last February, the Nigerian natural gas company Bonny LNG signed an agreement with six West European countries -- France, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands -- to supply 8 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas per year to 20 years, beginning in 1984-85.
For their part, the Russians have sent a high-ranking delegation to Europe within the past month for discussions on building a pipeline linking their Siberian gas fields to Western Europe. This would bring 40 billion cubic meters of Soviet gas annually to Austria, Belgium, France, West Germany, and Italy for 20 years, beginning in 1983.
Energy observers also point out that Qatar -- a country singled out in a recent EC report as being an "opportunity" for future European gas-supply contracts -- has discovered a huge field that could have some 4 trillion cubic meters of gas in it, equal to nearly half the proven reserves in the US. Some estimates of the find run as high as 10 trillion cubic meters, or about 10 percent of the world's known reserves of the fuel.