Environment

Germany eyes rules for controversial gas extraction

28.02.13 @ 21:38

  1. By Valentina Pop
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Berlin - Cancer-inducing chemicals, flaring tap water, sick children, dead animals, wasteland as far as the eye can see.

  • Anti-fracking protesters in Berlin last December (Photo: Jakob Huber/Campact)

An award-winning documentary, GasLand, three years ago exposed the dark side of what the US says is its "shale gas revolution," which has transformed it from a gas-importing into a gas-exporting country.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a novel gas extraction method applied to reserves which were too small or too deep to tap by conventional gas rigs.

It amounts to digging a narrow pit deep into the bedrock (shale) where gas reserves are detected. A high-pressured combination of water, sand and some 600 toxic chemicals is then pumped into the well, which cracks the shale and releases the gas.

Not all gas is captured by the pipeline. And most of the toxic cocktail remains in the bedrock, sometimes finding its way into the groundwater.

In Europe, fracking is still a very controversial topic, banned in countries like France and Bulgaria, but open to exploration in Britain, Poland and, perhaps soon, Germany.

A joint bill tabled earlier this week by the Liberal, pro-industry economy minister Philipp Roesler and the Christian-Democrat, anti-fracking environment minister Peter Altmeier tried to reconcile the two extremes by setting out rules and banned areas for future shale gas exploration.

To Roesler, the bill, provided it passes the upper chamber where the opposition has a majority, will open up possibilities for Germany to become less dependent on energy imports.

To Altmeier, the bill equates to a "de facto moratorium,' as it prohibits fracking in "ground water protected areas" - or about 14 percent of the estimated shale gas reserves.

Yet were Germany to go ahead and set its own rules and standards for fracking, others may follow.

"This is not a good sign for unity in the EU. If Germany goes ahead and sets its own rules and standards, other countries will also say 'why should we wait for the European Commission to table anything?'," German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen, who sits on the environment committee in the European Parliament, told this website.

He is doubtful that the German bill will pass, describing it rather as a "political manoeuvre" ahead of the upcoming general elections in September.

"Roesler and the Liberals want to show they are friendly to industry, Altmeier wants to be strong on environmental issues. The proposal doesn't show unity within the government on the issue and it will probably not pass before elections," he noted.

Meanwhile, other member states, being strongly wooed by US oil and gas giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil, are also toying with the idea of allowing shale gas exploration on their territories.

Poland is the most favourable to fracking, as it sees shale gas as a solution to reduce its energy dependence on Russian imports.

Hungary also prospected its shale reserves, but ExxonMobil withdrew in the end for economic reasons.

In Romania, Chevron has leased swathes of land in the south-east of the country near the Black Sea, including in a popular seaside resort. A six-month ban imposed after locals protested against fracking ended earlier this year when the Socialist government changed course and decided to allow the firm to explore the reserves.

In neighbouring Bulgaria, a similar ban introduced during the government of Bojko Borisov, who resigned earlier this month, may also be overturned once a new cabinet is in place.

Exploration itself does no harm, says Kornel Andzsans-Balogh, a Hungarian energy expert, however.

"I understand people are afraid of this new technology, but exploration is small scale and as it turned out to be the case in Hungary, it may prove that the reserves are not economically viable," he said.

Andzsans-Balogh told this website that as a "private person" he feels all those chemicals being put in the the earth are a "very risky business," but that as an energy expert he can say it is not the technology itself that is dangerous, but rather the way it is being handled.

As for Germany, should it allow fracking on its territory, this would "definitely serve as a role model for other countries," Andzsans-Balogh said.

An EU commission spokesman said it is up to member states to ban or allow fracking on their territories.

However, an environmental study published in September by the EU commission found that there is a "high risk of surface and groundwater contamination" during the various stages of shale gas exploitation.

"Inadequate design" of gas wells, cracks in the pipeline going into the deep rock bed and abandoned wells have already led to leaks of poisonous chemicals as well as inflammable gas into groundwater reserves in the US.

"Substances of potential concern include naturally occurring heavy metals, natural gas, naturally occurring radioactive material and technologically enhanced radioactive material from drilling operations," the EU study says.

Because of the high quantities of water needed to be pumped underground, around 30 million litres per fracking according to Dangers of Fracking website, the EU environment study warns that fracking may lead to "a decrease in public water supply" and negative effects on animals and plants in the area.

Wastewater could to be used in the process instead of fresh water, but the EU study warns that this would increase the risk of introducing "radioactive materials" into the ground water in case of well failure.

The European Parliament last November mooted banning fracking altogether, but only managed to pass a bill calling for tougher rules and scrutiny over the chemicals used in the process.