• Shale: The 'fracking' process in gas extraction divides public opinion in Europe (Photo: Travis S.)

EU ditches plan to regulate on shale gas

22.01.14 @ 17:35

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

BRUSSELS - The European Commission has backed away from tabling new laws to regulate shale gas extraction, choosing to leave national governments in charge on the controversial practice.

Instead, the EU executive proposed a set of recommendations for governments to maintain environmental standards. These include rules on minimum distances between fracking sites and residential and water-protection areas

The EU executive also wants governments to make sure that fracking companies put in place water-management plans, capture and use gases such as methane that are also extracted, and minimise gas flaring.

The list of recommendations, which are not legally binding, marks the completion of a u-turn by the EU executive, which had promised to legislate on shale gas exploration just a few months ago, only to backtrack in the face of concerted government lobbying.

However, the commission has left open the prospect of introducing legislation further down the line.

The process of hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking," where rocks containing natural gas are fractured by hundreds of litres of water and chemicals being pumped at high-pressure, divides public opinion.

Critics argue that the process is inherently unsafe, uses huge amounts of water, and leads to toxic chemicals polluting ground-water supplies.

Supporters say that pollution can be avoided and point to the vast reserves of natural gas, estimated to be between 100 and 200 years worth of supply, sitting in the rock-beds of Europe.

In a statement on Wednesday (22 January) environment commissioner Janez Potocnik said that "shale gas is raising hopes in some parts of Europe, but is also a source of public concern."

He added that the recommendations would "address environmental and health concerns and give operators and investors the predictability they need."

The move was quickly welcomed by industry.

"Shale gas can be developed in Europe respecting the environment within the current legislation," said Roland Festor, director of the Oil and Gas Producers Association.

The recent emergence of vast supplies of natural shale gas in the US has radically altered the energy landscape and provided an economic boon worth an estimated 0.5 percent increase in total economic output.

The prospect of lower gas prices and energy self-sufficiency has led several EU countries, including the UK and Poland, to underline their determination to press ahead with shale extraction.

Both countries have lobbied hard for the commission to leave regulation in the hands of governments.

But the Commission's light-touch approach prompted swift condemnation from Green MEPs and lobby groups.

"Barroso has bowed to the pressure of the fossil fuel lobby and its political cheerleaders like David Cameron," said Green environmental spokesman Carl Schlyter.

"Shale gas regulations have been fracked to pieces by corporations and fossil fuel-fixated governments," said Friends of the Earth.

The NGO added that "insufficient and non-binding recommendations and monitoring mean fracking will go ahead improperly regulated and local communities will be the ones who suffer."

Next month, MEPs in Strasbourg will vote on a review of the Environmental Impact Assessment directive which also seems set to exempt fracking projects.

Under a compromise text agreed by ministers, environmental impact assessments for shale gas projects will be prepared on a voluntary basis by member states.