Shale gas tussle bubbling under EU surface
09.05.11 @ 16:33
BRUSSELS - Heralded as an energy game-changer by supporters, perceived as environmentally pernicious by critics, shale gas is both controversial and increasingly on the European agenda.
Trapped in shale rock deep under the earth's surface, the 'unconventional' gas has grown from just one percent of US domestic gas production a decade ago to roughly 20 percent today, with major reserves discovered all across the globe.
A recent report by the US Energy Information Administration put the volume of technically recoverable shale gas in Europe at 17.5 trillion cubic metres, compared with 24.5 trillion in the US.
This, coupled with key advances in extraction technology, has not gone unnoticed this side of the Atlantic, with upcoming EU presidency-holders Poland among states most keen to tap the new energy source and break the region's reliance on gas imports from Russia.
The industry itself has been quick to label shale gas as a 'green' alternative to coal and a vital tool in Europe's fight against climate change, embarking on a furious lobbying effort in recent months in a bid to secure favourable legislation.
Published by the European Commission in March, an EU '2050 roadmap' on decarbonising the region's economy says nothing on shale gas, with all eyes now on a follow-up energy 'roadmap' scheduled for this autumn.
"The possible impact of future European unconventional gas production on the EU's energy mix is difficult to assess," the commission told this website in written replies to questions.
"It is still to be proven … whether any areas with geological potential will allow economically viable gas production at commercial scale."
Others are keen to push ahead however, with test drilling underway in several member states, including the UK, Germany and Poland.
Speaking at an event in Brussels last Friday (6 May), Maciej Szpunar, under-secretary of state at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made his government's intentions clear. "Shale gas will be a priority under the Polish EU presidency," he told the audience of EU, industry and NGO officials.
Polish Oil and Gas Company (POGS) vice-president Marek Karabula was still clearer. "Please don't be alarmed when we in Poland push ahead very strongly [with shale gas] as it will allow us to make up for a 45-year gap," he said.
Despite its omission from earlier drafts, Warsaw successfully secured a reference to shale gas in the final conclusions of an extraordinary summit of EU leaders in February, a bid to open the door to potential EU subsidies for industry development, say people close to the discussions.
At the same time, the world's largest oil companies are busily securing land across Europe with a view to exploiting the region's shale gas reserves.
Cuadrilla Resources bored its first shale gas well in the UK last year, Chevron is planning its first well in Poland later this year, while ExxonMobil recently finished drilling its sixth well in north-west Germany.
Major obstacles still exist concedes Karabula. "Polish Oil and Gas Company will need to crack the minds of Polish citizens," he told the conference, an acknowledgement of the considerable opposition from civil society and environmental groups towards the energy source.
Fears have been nourished by reports that shale extraction in the US has led to water contamination, exploding rigs and gas seeping out household water taps – portrayed in the Oscar-nominated documentary 'Gasland'.
Such concerns led New York authorities to place a temporary moratorium on the drilling of new shale gas wells, with France doing likewise until greater information is known.
"While all environmentalists agree on the need to move away from coal, I don't think you will find much enthusiasm for shale gas," Jesse Scott of EG3, an NGO which campaigns for sustainable development, told the conference.
Many doubts relate to the negative side-effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process of pumping millions of litres of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, down the bore hole in order to smash the shale rock and collect the released gas.
The toxicity of fracking chemicals and how they are disposed of once used, as well as the large volumes of water needed, have all raised question marks. Others suggest fracking alters a locality's water table, with important knock-on effects for wildlife and humans.
A new study by the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (Eucers) last week said "unconventional gas resources might be able to cover European gas demand for at least another 60 years", but added that region's high population density could pose problems.
Shale gas drilling requires many more wells to be sunk than convention gas drilling.
The same report added that current EU environmental legislation is "not adequate" for ensuring environmentally friendly exploration and production of shale gas.
Fighting climate change
Industry has been quick to point to the lower emissions produced when burning gas compared to coal, hailing shale as the new green energy of the future.
An unpublished economic analysis commissioned by the European Gas Advocacy Forum (EGAF), and leaked to the Guardian newspaper, said Europe could save about €900 billion by 2050 if it met its emissions targets through investment in gas rather than renewables.
The paper's conclusions have since met with several strong challenges however, including from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the green think-tank whose 'open source' data was used in the analysis.
On top of this, a peer-viewed paper by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University in the US, last month suggested methane leakage into the earth's atmosphere during shale gas extraction made the energy source actually dirtier than coal.
In a bid to successfully assess the merits of shale and other energy sources, the European Commission has appointed a group of 'wise men' to advise it ahead of this autumn's publication of a '2050 roadmap' on energy.
Chairing the group of 11 men and three women is Dieter Helm, a professor of energy policy at Oxford University.
Helm supports shale gas production in Europe as a transitional energy to wean the region off coal, believing that renewable energy sources are going to remain uncompetitive for many years to come.
"Things are going very badly in the fight against climate change," he said last week, a day after the group met for the first time. "The only thing we have found that has made a dent in emissions is an economic recession."
"Shale gas could make a difference but it's only a transition … a transition to what we are not sure yet."