Opinion

We need an honest debate on shale gas

21.11.11 @ 11:11

  1. By Roderick Kefferpütz

BRUSSELS - Shale gas has undoubtedly been a game-changer in the United States. Over recent decades, the rapid uptake of new innovations such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling has transformed the country from a gas importer to exporter. For years an accompanying debate has been raging in the US concerning the merits and demerits of shale gas.

  • (Photo: Dustin Gray)

Across the Atlantic, the European Union has been behind the curve. Only recently has talk of shale gas finally reached the ears of the European Parliament. The EP hosted a number of hearings on this issue in October and its industry (ITRE) and environment (ENVI) committees have now decided to draft separate own-initiative reports on shale gas. Regrettably, this development mirrors the current discussions on this new energy source only too closely.

Public debate on shale gas has become polarised. Advocates consider it a silver bullet ensuring energy independence, jobs and a more climate-friendly energy source; for opponents it is a poisoned chalice with massive environmental and social implications. Establishing a constructive dialogue between the two and finding a balanced perspective has become a Herculean task. Rather than bridging divides, too many commentaries these days pour fuel on the fire.

MEP Derk-Jan Eppink’s article (“A strategy for exploiting European shale gas resources”, 05 October 2011), unfortunately, also falls into this trap. Mr Eppink’s articles are always an interesting read; he is an argumentative, opinionated and independent-minded author. But in his piece on shale gas he disappoints, failing to adequately acknowledge the fears surrounding shale gas and overhyping its benefits.

Ridiculing environmentalists, he passes off concerns such as earthquakes and water pollution as “Luddite superstitions”. Relevant research, however, claims otherwise. A recent report commissioned by the energy company Cuadrilla Resources admitted that it was ‘highly probable’ that its fracking activity was the cause of the earthquakes earlier this year in the British county of Lancashire. Examples of water contamination by fluids contained in hydraulic fracturing have also been reported on numerous occasions. According to the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, in 2009 drinking water in several homes in Dimock, Pennsylvania was found to contain metals and methane gas. As a result, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is undertaking a study examining the links between drinking water and hydraulic fracturing. Wastewater disposal standards for shale gas have also been lacking, with the Pennsylvania State Environment Agency stating that used water was increasing levels of bromides in at least two rivers in Pennsylvania. Another reason why the EPA has decided to regulate the wastewater discharged from shale gas production.

In this context, Mr Eppink was too quick to brush aside these concerns. His call for the European Commission and Parliament to develop an energy strategy that fully develops the EU’s shale gas resources “while still taking environmental concerns seriously” suggests he realises this to some extent. But this statement leaves the reader slightly puzzled. After all, which environmental concerns should be taken seriously when, by discrediting environmental concerns throughout his article, he essentially suggests there are none?

It is also important to note that the European Commission and Parliament have little leverage when it comes to pursuing an energy strategy that actually develops shale gas. Determining the energy mix is the prerogative of member states and tapping shale gas also falls under regional responsibilities. France, for instance, has put a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing as has Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia. The European Commission and Parliament could, however, use the community method in the field of environmental policy to regulate shale gas. In this context, the former is finishing a study analysing whether the current regulatory framework is sufficient. What both EU institutions, however, should particularly be doing – besides their homework on the state of play regarding shale gas – is engaging in a dialogue with their constituencies.

The European Parliament has taken an important step by putting forward a pilot project on shale gas within the draft Budget 2012 that calls on the Commission to organise debates involving NGOs, industries and citizens throughout the EU on this subject. These must not become politicised. They should be organised by the European Commission representation offices and should include parliamentarians of different political colours.

The debate on shale gas is reaching hysterical proportions. It is high time to have a frank, open and honest debate that acknowledges both the merits and drawbacks of shale gas. This should bring perspectives together in order to lead to an adequate regulatory framework. The upcoming own-initiative reports in the environment and industry committees harbour the opportunity to bridge divides and cross aisles rather than polarise the debate even further.

Let’s hope the Parliament has, in Derk-Jan Eppink’s words, the “political maturity” to do so.

The writer is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and an Associate at the Berlin-based Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. He is the author of ‘Shale Fever: Replicating the US gas revolution in the EU?’ published by CEPS in June 2010.