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Shale Gas and Fracking – an Energy Revolution in Europe?

Shale Gas and Fracking – an Energy Revolution in Europe?

6 March 2012

The 21st Climate Talk, which took place on 6 March 2012, addressed issues regarding fracking and was entitled "Shale gas and fracking - an energy revolution in Europe?"

Shale gas - natural gas trapped deep in underground rock formations - has provided hope for an energy revolution in Europe. Because the gas can only be retrieved with the technique of "hydraulic fracturing" (short: "fracking"), which uses great quantities of water and sand as well as chemical components, the potential environmental effects are being discussed intensely and controversially.

The Climate Talk focused on the risks of shale gas extraction and the potential need for regulation within Germany and the EU. The speakers Prof. Dr. Dietrich Borchardt (UFZ, Leipzig), Dr. Heinrich Herm Stapelberg (ExxonMobil), and Bernd Kirschbaum (Federal Environment Agency, Germany) addressed the technological possibilities and risks as well as the current regulatory debate.

Prof. Dr. Dietrich Borchardt identified the issues about shale gas retrieval that are currently being addressed by selected experts in a dialogue process led by the industry. The drilling technology used to remove the gas from deep underground rock deposits is already in use, for example for the purpose of end-of-cycle exploitation of conventional natural gas reservoirs. There are three areas in which further investigation of the effects of fracking is needed. First of all, more information is needed about the possible hydrogeological changes material changes induced when water, complemented by chemicals, is introduced into tightly packed rock layers under great pressure. Second, an analysis of the risks of groundwater, drinking water, and ecosystems is necessary. Many years of experience in the chemical industry provide a basis for this, and the goal here should be to make accidents manageable. Third, a thorough legal analysis must also take place that should include the relevant fields of law, including mining law ("Bergrecht") and water law ("Wasserrecht"). In summary, Prof. Dr. Borchardt said that fracking is certainly a risky technology, but the risks are manageable. Especially in the case of the environmental risks, there is room for regulatory improvement. Up to this point, concrete recommendations have not been possible; however, the experts estimate the underground risks to be generally smaller than they currently seem to be perceived by the general public. On the other hand, above-ground risks are perhaps greater than their perception suggests, including the danger of chemical spills that then are absorbed into the soil. No statements can be made about the greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas because the necessary data is not yet available.

Dr. Heinrich Herm Stapelberg pointed to the growing importance of unconventional natural gas reserves in the worldwide energy mix. In the USA, shale gas has reportedly pushed liquid gas out of the market. He explained specifically what occurs in the fracking process at 3,000 to 5,000 meters below the surface: hairline fractures are created in the rock in order to force out the gas trapped within. Sand is then used as a bracing agent so that the cracks can be held open long enough for the gas to flow out. The chemicals used are necessary for three reasons. First of all, they change the viscosity of the mixture such that the sand can effectively be forced into the cracks. Second, they allow the water-sand mixture to be re-split in order to pump the water back out. The third reason is that the use of biocides is mandatory to prevent underground contamination from microorganisms present on the surface. Fracking was first used in Germany in 1961 and has been applied 300 times since then. Throughout the world, it has been used approximately 1.2 million times. Shale gas, according to Mr. Stapelberg, has a market potential of around 100 billion Euros (up to the year 2030). At this point, shale gas fields in Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westfalia look the most promising.

Mr. Bernd Kirschbaum reported from the perspective of the environmental offices about the surprising dynamics that have sprung up around the issue of fracking since autumn 2010. In response to an increasing number of requests to UBA, the Agency put together its first opinion on the practice in August 2011. Mr. Kirschbaum summarized the relevant basis in mining law: there is a legal difference between exploration and recovery. Germany has, up to now, only granted licenses for exploration in potential fracking areas. About 50% of the land of North Rhine-Westfalia is now open for exploration, but no permits for recovery have been granted. The UBA considers land use, noise pollution, and the pollution of surface and groundwater to be the next areas for investigation. The risks of fracking are more or less known, but a solid basis for evaluation of these risks is not available. Especially the above-ground risks must be investigated further. UBA has already commissioned a study of the potential effects on water resources. In addition, another study on the interaction between German mining and water law will be required. The fact that the environment is not recognized as a subject to protection undermining law is very problematic. Mining law also already benefits from exceptions from the EU Water Framework Directive. The cases requiring an environmental impact assessment must be expanded in order to include fracking. In addition, the issues surrounding groundwater also need to be viewed more critically - including for other technologies, such as CO2 capture and sequestration and geothermal power. The first necessary minimal requirements for the regulation of fracking are already included in the report being produced for UBA, including, for example, the introduction of a register to monitor the chemicals used. Up until now, UBA has only concerned itself with shale gas, but coal bed methane and the so-called "tight gas" also require further investigation.

The discussion that followed the presentations concerned itself at first with the question of shale gas's importance for the German energy turnaround (so-called Energiewende). This is very unclear due to the uncertainty about how much will be invested in natural gas-fired power plants in the future. The emissions profile of this energy source would also need to be considered. In this context, the role of the legislator facing uncertainty about the importance of shale gas was discussed.

Remediation and liability were also brought up. The risk of seismic events, which have already taken place in the UK, raises clear liability questions. These risks, along with the general geological conditions, would be assessed by the mining authorities in Germany. The question of liability is certainly critical because thorough monitoring would be necessary in order to be able to evaluate compensation claims properly and identify fracking as having caused the damage.

A lively discussion focused also on the conflicts and issues that have arisen in the USA (for example, igniting tap water). In Pennsylvania, there was no baseline data to allow a comparison of environmental quality before and after the introduction of fracking. Therefore, it cannot be determined whether methane was already present in drinking water because methane also occurs naturally in aquifers. Additionally, water and groundwater are not regulated as strictly there, and underground resources can be accessed by any landowner on his premises. The situation there is thus very different from that in Germany or other EU states. Accordingly, monitoring before and during the recovery of shale gas is very important. Above-ground accidents can become unmanageable if insufficient preventative measures are taken.

Because international standards for fracking vary, the argument was made that measures could be instituted in Germany to ensure that no unmanageable risks are taken during the recovery of shale gas, whereas imported gas may be recovered under very different and less stringent regulatory conditions. This argument is relevant for answering the question of whether shale gas resources should be exploited at all within Germany.

The lively discussion was continued after the formal event at a nearby restaurant.

Prof. Dr. Dietrich Borchardt (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ)
Dr. Heinrich Herm Stapelberg (Exxon Mobil)
Bernd Kirschbaum (Federal Environment Agency)
6 March 2012
Berlin, Germany
Number of Participants
energy, shale gas, fracking, climate protection, climate protection, industry, risk, technology, drillings, water