Potential large shale gas deposits in Europe have raised hopes that the old continent may in the future rely less on oil and natural gas imports from Russia. However, fears of potential environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing and the lack of a clear policy by the European Union have led to the suspension of shale gas exploration in France and Bulgaria in the past year. In April, environmental protests spread to Romania raising concerns that shale gas exploration could be stalled in yet another EU state.
Shale gas is extracted by injecting large quantities of water laced with chemicals and sand to fracture shale rock and release the gas trapped several kilometers beneath the surface. Environmentalists worry the process may contaminate ground water and cause ground tremors. Supporters claim shale gas offers a clean and low-cost fuel that could help reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy supplies.
The European Parliament (EP) seems to be taking the matter seriously, although its members are still divided about the economic effects and environmental safety of shale gas extraction. Debate on shale gas has intensified in the energy and environmental committees of the European legislative body. A draft report by the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy recommended the European Union to support assessing, exploring and developing shale gas reserves in Europe (Dnevnik, April 4). The report says that all estimates made so far point to the existence of a large indigenous energy resource in Europe and asserts that shale gas production will increase the security of supply, given the member states’ dependence on natural gas exports from third countries.
Shale gas is also expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the extensive use of coal in some member states, such as Poland. The country has been particularly eager to develop its shale gas deposits, reduce coal use, and ensure energy independence from Russia, which currently delivers 70 percent of Poland’s natural gas supplies. Poland has granted 109 concessions for shale gas exploration to 20 companies and is expected to start commercial production in 2014 (Rzeczpospolita, March 23).
The EP’s energy committee report takes into account environmental safety concerns and the need for public dialogue on unconventional fuel extraction. It highlights the necessity for safety standards and inspections at safety-critical stages of well construction and hydraulic fracturing. Prepared under the supervision of the energy committee rapporteur Niki Tzavela, a Greek member of the European Parliament, the report is essentially a draft motion for a European Parliament Resolution that will be put to a vote in June.
However, the EU parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety demanded the monitoring of shale gas development and stressed the need for appropriate laws to regulate shale gas exploration. The environmental committee called on national authorities to review existing state regulations on well construction for conventional fossil fuels and update those provisions covering unconventional fossil fuel extraction.
In January, the EU Commission concluded that existing EU legislation is adequate to protect the environment in the exploration phase of shale gas, at least until it reaches commercial scale (mediapool.bg, January 27). Polish member of the European Parliament, Boguslaw Sonik, also believes that more regulations are not needed. “We need a debate based on facts that are accessible and based, inter alia, on the Polish experience,” he said in Warsaw discussing a report he initiated on the environmental impact of shale oil and gas extraction. The report, which will be presented to the EP’s environmental committee on April 10, calls for improved implementation of existing rules and proposes the establishment of a “catalogue of good practices” on shale gas extraction (inwestycje.pl, April 2).
Drilling for shale gas has started in Poland, Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. Public opposition has led the French parliament to ban hydraulic fracturing and set a moratorium for such drilling activities. The regional parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany also pledged a moratorium until more information is available. Under pressure from environmental groups, the Bulgarian parliament adopted on January 18 an indefinite moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, and the government revoked a shale gas exploration permit granted to the US company Chevron for deposits in northeastern Bulgaria (EDM, January 24). The moratorium has affected conventional oil and gas drilling in the country and invited objections from local and foreign companies.
The debate in the European Parliament came just as the Bulgarian parliament established an ad-hoc committee to review the moratorium and study “good practices and legislative solutions” in regulating the exploration and extraction of mineral and energy resources. If the committee finds there is a potential environmental risk, the current ban will be included in the laws on natural resources and environmental protection. The Bulgarian Minister of Economy and Energy Delyan Dobrev said, however, that if hydraulic fracturing is found to be safe, the moratorium could be lifted (BNT, April 2; novinite.com; Dnevnik, April 4).
In neighboring Romania, at the end of March, the government granted Chevron a license to explore for shale gas in three locations. But subsequent protests in Bucharest made Chevron cautious about proceeding before the public is convinced about the safety of the technology. Chevron announced the company will only conduct seismic research in the first year and will work to convince the population that hydraulic fracturing is a safe technology (Jurnalul Naţional, BTA, April 2).