A major project to expand energy capacity has been announced as part of Britain's preparations to become a significant importer of natural gas.

The investment of £355 million by Warwickbased National Grid Transco will see capacity triple at its liquefied natural-gas importation terminal at Isle of Grain, Kent.

British Gas owner Centrica and two other firms - Gaz de France and Sonatrach - will benefit from the additional capacity after signing 20-year contracts.

The development will help meet an anticipated 15 per cent rise in annual gas demand over the next ten years as Britain moves from being an exporter to an importer of natural gas - a landmark likely to be confirmed this year.

Centrica said the additional capacity, which is likely to be available from late 2008, would enable it to meet nine per cent of its current annual demand from the site.

Overall, the development will increase the facility's capacity to import and process LNG from 3.3 million tonnes per year to 9.8 million tonnes per year.

National Grid Transco director Edward Astle said: "As Britain moves progressively from being an exporter to a significant importer of natural gas, it is vital that the infrastructure is in place to meet the nation's gas requirements."

The Isle of Grain site has been associated with LNG storage capacity since the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, Shell revealed the extent of its declining reserves after replacing only 19 per cent of the oil that was pumped out of the ground in

Shell said its recoverable reserves stood at 11.9 billion barrels at the end of December, down from a restated figure of 12.95 billion barrels a year earlier.

The figures were included in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and were in line with guidance given at the time of the company's annual results last month.

Shell was forced to restate its data for 2003 and the previous year in the wake of the


reserves crisis that claimed the scalps of three senior executives and led to regulators imposing fines totalling almost £83 million.

The company downgraded its reserves from 19.35 billion barrels of oil at the end of 2002 to 14.87 billion barrels after it emerged that bosses had overbooked the amount of oil that could be recovered from the ground.

The figure for 2003 was also cut from 14.35 billion barrels of oil to 12.95 billion barrels after Shell completed an audit of its worldwide energy fields.

Shell has been battling to restore confidence in its business since the reserves crisis broke in January last year. Investors will vote in June on proposals to merge Shell's UK and Dutch parent companies after nearly 100 years of separate operations.

And earlier this month, the company tightened its policy for awarding pay to executives and scrapped potentially lucrative stock options.

Record oil prices have enabled shares in Shell to recover from the sharp falls that followed the company's initial downgrade of its reserves and four further cuts. Shell reclassified its reserves for a final time last month.