Did you know that eleven European Union countries are involved with fracking? A recent EU study shows that Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom have already authorised or plan to authorise high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), or fracking as it’s better known.
Licences to frack have been granted in a number of these countries, while others are conducting impact assessments. Poland is aggressively developing its reserves, and the UK is making good on David Cameron’s promise to “go all out for shale”.
At the other end of the scale, several Member States have imposed moratoria (temporary bans) or complete bans (credit due to Bulgaria, France, Germany and Luxembourg), after public pressure. Moratoria have also previously stood in several other countries, and some regions. Evidently, policy on fracking is muddled across Europe; here are five reasons why the European Union should legislate for an EU-wide moratorium on fracking.
Enshrined in the Lisbon treaty is the precautionary principle: the idea that if an action or policy could cause harm to the public or environment, the onus is on those taking the action to prove it is not harmful, rather than on others to prove the contrary. Clearly, it has not been proved that fracking is not harmful, and much of the evidence suggests it is. The precautionary principle alone would therefore be enough reason for the EU to impose a moratorium on fracking until there is an adequate legally-binding regulatory framework to control it, and align it with other policies such as climate targets.
Natural gas is often promoted as a “bridge” fuel on the way to a zero-carbon future, as it generates much lower emissions than coal or oil. However, given the commitments in Paris to keep global warming below a two (ideally 1.5) degree Celsius rise, the concept of the carbon budget becomes all the more important, and the bridge to a zero-carbon future must become shorter and shorter. It is estimated that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground in order to avoid exceeding the Paris target. Banning fracking would send a clear signal to energy companies that they should not invest in extreme methods to extract fossil fuels, but should turn to renewable sources.
Water and soil effects
As well as affecting the EU’s ability to meet its climate targets, the intensive process of fracking can have negative effects on the water and soil where fracking takes place. Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to break rock and extract hydrocarbons. This process is very water intensive and can lead to water shortages, uses toxic chemicals which can harm human health and the local environment including polluting underground waterways, and could have impacts on biodiversity. Although the EU has adopted a recommendation on minimum principles for fracking legislation in member states, these do not adequately address these concerns, and the recommendation is applied differently across Europe, and even incompletely applied in some countries.
One QCEA supporter from the Netherlands about the possible pollution of underground reserves, which are often used as drinking water. In the Netherlands, many people also live on top of their drinking water reserves!
The EU is currently trying to build an Energy Union – a single consistent energy market. Surely it would make sense to have common positions on energy sources at the European level? The common argument against this is that the energy mix is the responsibility of member states – but there is no inherent reason for this. In an energy union where energy will flow freely across national borders, how will EU countries with a moratorium on fracking be able to prevent fracked natural gas from other states entering their energy market, without dividing the single market? Of course, even an EU-wide moratorium would do nothing to stop shale gas (and other extreme fossil fuels) from being imported, making it crucial to ensure that trade policy does not undermine Europe’s efforts to build a more sustainable world.
Last but not least, there is the question of the EU’s international credibility. Having committed to act urgently on climate change in Paris, why do Member States and the EU allow technology like fracking, which desperately tries to sustain the unsustainable status quo? Imagine, if instead of promoting fossil-based energy, the EU took the bold step to back up the Paris agreement with action.