If you’re reading this in Europe, the likelihood is that you are sitting not too far from shale gas reserves, or even on top of them. The map below shows Europe’s major unconventional natural gas resources (shale gas and coalbed methane). The extraction of this gas, via the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), has been hailed as a ‘game changer’ in the US owing to its short-term contribution to energy security and prices.
QCEA agrees that shale gas will indeed be a game changer, but not in the positive way that this is often interpreted.
Shale gas will be a game changer in the EU’s efforts to meet its climate change targets. (The EU aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020. It is currently discussing more ambitious targets for 2030, and these will contribute to an overall target of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.) Some proponents of shale gas argue that it is a more climate-friendly fuel, as the combustion process releases less carbon dioxide than many conventional fuels such as oil and coal. Whilst this is may be true, it is also extremely misleading, as the process of extracting shale gas can release methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Some will tell you that this is no more than a minor risk as only 5% of wells initially leak methane. What they fail to mention is that the risk increases to 50% over the life of the well, which must be maintained indefinitely, even after it is no longer being used.1 An important thing to know is that hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of individual wells are required in one ‘play’, or area of shale gas extraction, in order to efficiently extract a profitable quantity of gas. Taking these figures into account makes it clear that the risk of methane leakage is in fact significant, and the argument that shale gas is a more climate-friendly fuel does not stand.
Shale gas will also be a game changer to those of us who live near to fracking sites. As experience has shown, we will risk contaminated drinking water and soils, and consequently threats to our health and that of our community. The contamination can result from both methane leakage and also the mixture of chemicals that are injected into the ground in order to force apart the rocks from which we extract gas. 80% of this waste water remains underground, where it may contaminate groundwater. The rest of this contaminated water is expelled above ground, and our municipal water systems are not equipped to treat this waste.2 Other concerns of local people include increased traffic and noise pollution.
It will be a game changer for wildlife and biodiversity, which is far less resilient than we are to water and soil contamination. Shale gas exploration is already venturing into certain Special Areas of Conservation, supposedly protected by the EU Natura 2000 scheme. The impacts of fracking will directly contradict the EU’s headline biodiversity target which pledges to “halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems services in the EU by 2020.”
These profound and far-reaching implications have not gone unnoticed by the European public. In responding to a recent European consultation on the opportunities and challenges of unconventional fossil fuels (e.g. shale gas) in Europe, over 22,000 European citizens exercised their right to have a say in this debate. This response was described as “overwhelming” by the Commission, who often receive only 100 to 200 responses to online consultations. The public voice on this matter must not go unheard. In my next blog, I will discuss developments in European policy, and how we can encourage transparency, open debate and accountability on such a divisive and important issue.
1 Thomas Porcher, author of Le Mirage du Gaz de Schiste, Speaking at the The Fracturing of Public Opinion Debate, 27Th May 2013, Brussels.
2 Eberhart et al, (2013) The Right to Say No: EU Canada Trade Agreement Threatens Fracking Bans, published by the Transnational Institute, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Council of Canadians, p7