A walk along the country lanes of Balcombe, a leafy English village in the county of West Sussex, used to be accompanied by the sounds of a woodpecker, a blackbird, or perhaps a wood pigeon. But that was before July when British oil and gas company Cuadrilla rolled in to test-drill for gas in shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
These days in Balcombe you are more likely to hear the rumble of heavy machinery and the shouts of antifracking protesters. Activists have set up camp, banners are being waved, and dozens of arrests have been made outside Cuadrilla’s site entrance. Protesters are concerned about the environmental consequences of fracking, including seismic activity as well as pollution from chemicals that are mixed with water and pumped underground to open up fractures and allow gas out.
Although fracking sparks debate in the U.S., in Europe it triggers much more, actually dividing the region. Among the European Union’s 28 member states, countries such as Bulgaria, France, and Ireland have banned fracking on environmental grounds. Other countries—along with Europe’s chemical industry—are embracing it as a path to economic prosperity.
The U.K. has the most ambitious fracking plans of any country in Europe. Countries including Denmark, Poland, and some Eastern European states reliant on gas from Russia are also taking steps to establish the technology. Oil and gas firms drilled a series of test wells in Poland in 2012 but have not yet identified any positive results. Fracking is also permitted in Germany, but it has yet to be established on a large scale.
In France, on the other hand, oil and gas company Schuepbach Energy is currently challenging the government in court over the cancellation of two shale gas exploration permits after the country banned fracking. French oil and chemicals giant Total, which has a permit to explore 4,327 km2 of land in southern France, will be watching the Schuepbach case closely.
French President François Hollande says any potential economic advantages from exploiting shale gas are outweighed by concerns about air and water pollution. “As long as I am president, there will be no exploration for shale gas in France,” he recently told a French TV channel. Hollande has almost four more years in office.
The EU has taken a neutral position by allowing policies on fracking to be determined at the national level. But that hasn’t stopped infighting among leading figures within the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard is opposed to the exploitation of shale gas, whereas other senior commission figures have come out in favor of fracking because they say it will strengthen the region’s economy.
Following a public comment period early this year, the commission created a project to develop safer and cleaner fracking technologies. Part of the EU’s European Energy Research Alliance, the multiyear project will feature input from 24 European research institutes. One of EERA’s main goals is to develop harmonized approaches to fracking, says René Peters, the project’s director and the director of gas technology for TNO, a Dutch research organization that itself is developing fracking technology.
According to the U.K. government, fracking’s economic benefits outweigh its potential environmental impact. “I think we would be making a big mistake as a nation if we did not think hard about how to encourage fracking,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told journalists recently. “Even if we see only a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America, we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country. There is no question of having earthquakes and fire coming out of taps and all the rest of it. There will be very clear environmental procedures and certificates you will have to get before you can frack.”
◾ Contributes to a country’s energy supply
◾ Friendly compared with other forms of energy production
◾ Local production allows control over energy output impact
◾ Is safe to produce
◾ Profitable for host country
◾ Boosts local economy
◾ Reduces host country’s dependence on fuel imports
◾ Hinders the transition to renewable energy
◾ Production harms the environment
◾ Takes up space and disturbs tranquility
◾ Production is a hazard to employees and residents
◾ Expensive, and profitability is unclear
◾ Lowers property values
◾ Can lead to domestic political tensions
◾ Requires amendments to existing legislation
◾ Can negatively affect neighboring countries
U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has pledged to make the U.K.’s tax regime the “most generous for shale in the world” with an effective tax rate for onshore fracking of just 30%, compared with 62% for conventional oil and gas extraction. Additionally, shale gas companies are required to give local communities at least $150,000 for each well drilled.
Even with these financial incentives on the table, U.K. residents are evenly split for and against fracking, according to a recent survey by London-based ICM Research. It found that 41% of British people would support fracking in their local area and 40% would oppose it.
Most environmental organizations, including U.K.-based Frack Off, are resisting any form of fracking. Frack Off is one of a number of groups that have sprung up in Europe to raise awareness about potential environmental effects. Frack Off associates the technology with leaking methane, water contamination, air pollution, radioactivity, climate change, and earthquakes. Additionally, “severe health effects in people and animals are beginning to mount in areas where shale gas extraction is widespread,” the organization states.
In the face of protests, European chemical companies such as Ineos, which is a large consumer of natural gas in the U.K., have remained largely quiet on the issue, allowing trade associations such as the U.K.’s Chemical Industries Association (CIA) and the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) to make the case for fracking on their behalf.
It’s difficult to predict what effect widespread fracking would have on the European chemical industry, but “even limited fracking can generate positive effects on energy and feedstock prices that we should not forgo,” says René van Sloten, executive director of industrial policy for CEFIC. Speaking to The Telegraph, a national U.K. newspaper, earlier this year, Ineos Director Tom Crotty highlighted the “massive opportunity” that fracking would provide for the U.K.
Yet European chemical executives are acutely aware that environmental concerns could limit use of fracking technology in the region. “I’m pessimistic with regard to Europe’s general technophobia and willingness to trot out the precautionary principle without any real thought of costs and benefits,” says Alan Eastwood, a CIA economic adviser. “There is a strongly entrenched green movement which will fight hard against any use of more fossil fuels. I fear we could very easily see Europe missing another boat.”
Even if industry gets its way and governments across the region embrace fracking, activity would be lower than in the U.S. because drilling would be limited by Europe’s high population density. “Fracking requires a lot of wells. Europe has much less available space as a result of its higher population density and a subsurface that is used extensively for other purposes,” TNO’s Peters says.
Potentially tipping the argument in favor of fracking in the U.K. are recent geological surveys that indicate larger reserves of shale gas than previously had been identified. The British Geological Survey now estimates that 1,300 trillion cu ft of gas could lie under northern England. Just 10% of this gas could meet Britain’s needs for at least the next four decades.
The reserves are much larger than the 137 trillion cu ft in France and 148 trillion cu ft in Poland, figures that come from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Germany also has smaller reserves, so the German Advisory Council on the Environment, a government advisory group, has stated that it doubts shale gas would be profitable in Germany.
However, experts say that emerging technologies for enhancing recovery of shale gas could hike the amount of economically recoverable gas. Technology also could be the key to keeping a lid on European concerns about the greenhouse gas impact of “fracked” gas, which some recent studies show is greater than that for natural gas extracted conventionally (Geophys. Res. Lett. 2013, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50811).
One problem with fracked gas in some U.S. wells is that methane may be released to the atmosphere when water from wells is released into surface ponds.
In Europe, however, companies are required to keep well water contained. This practice should keep the additional greenhouse impact of fracked gas to within 10% of that of conventionally extracted gas, according to Peters.
Oil and gas firms insist that fracking can be done safely and with minimal harm to the environment. But not everyone believes them, including many of the residents of Balcombe. Only days ago Cuadrilla hoisted the white flag and stated that, on advice from U.K. police, it has temporarily halted drilling operations in the village. The firm is now looking for sites that are farther from human habitation, something hard to find on this sceptred, crowded isle.