Fracking has been a controversial topic in Europe. While supporters point to its long term benefits, opponents have said that the environmental costs could be catastrophic. As Ana Escaso, Viral Shah and Rebecca Thorning Wine investigate, the answer could come from slightly further afield.
Public discourse on Fracking has been suitably hardline with companies and governments vocally supporting the benefits to consumers while pressure groups have disputed reports and called for an alternative way to manage Europe’s energy needs.
Last October, European Commissioner for Environment Janez Potocnik and Matthias Groote Chair, from Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety were discussing the European strategy for shale gas in London. Other countries such as the US or China have integrated fracking in their energy policy a long time ago, as well as other countries in the world that are shifting new power balances in energy markets. Meanwhile in Europe, energy prices are higher in the midst of an economic crisis.
This has led to calls that energy policy and strategy must be taken into consideration wisely and accordingly among EU member states.
However, what is fracking?
Supporters of fracking claim that our energy resources are scarce. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking allows the release of shale gas injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into a well at high pressure. This fractures hard rock wells to increase fluid removal and obtain bubbles of gas embedded into rocks located underground.
In the European strategy of shale conference fracking was described as ‘a possible substitute for more polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and lignite, a better security of supply with less dependence on dominant energy suppliers from abroad, as well as a source of public revenues’.
Potential for environmental harm
However, opponents of this process have suggested that the use of chemicals in this technique is related to water pollution and air emissions. A small earthquake in the UK a few years ago was also blamed on fracking. The reason for this is that to achieve these tiny bubbles of gas, tunnels up to 5.000 meters have to be drilled, introducing pressurized chemicals and sometimes using small explosives. Even though the risk of inducing earthquakes is very low, microearthquakes (magnitudes below 2) are routinely produced as a result of fracking. According to Science magazine’s study, more than 10.000 wells have been subjected to fracking in recent years. Nevertheless, the largest induced earthquake was magnitude 3.6, considered too small to establish it as a risk. Contrary, Geology magazine published another article warning that the practice of clearing the ground from chemical substances could cause earthquakes up to 5.6 in the Richter magnitude scale.
In 2012 a joint committee (involving the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering) chaired by Professor Robert Mair from Cambridge University analysed the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas exploration in Britain. Mair suggested, “risks could be managed effectively as long as operational best practices were implemented, and enforced through regulation”.
In addition to thus, another study from the UK government (Department of Energy and Climate Change) looked at the potential greenhouse gas emissions association with fracking. It concluded that a carbon footprint similar to conventional natural gas extraction is likely.
The Spanish citizen platform, Ecologists in Action, warned against the current negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TRIP), an economic treaty between the European Union and the United States ‘that would allow investors to act against environmental protection regulations and claim compensation in the private courts if they believe their interests will be affected.’
What is the current situation in Europe?
Every EU member state has the right to plan their energy policy in the way they consider suitable. The hydraulic fracturing regulation landscape in Europe is quite diverse: governments and municipalities are delivering legislation and local zoning limitations at the same time. For instance, France has banned fracking in 2011 and other countries have placed a temporary moratorium on the practice.
Fracking opponents and petrol companies are having an ongoing fight where techniques of public relations are used from the companies’ side to counter drilling opponents and influence in the public debate.
Nonetheless, a set of common general principles and measures have been assessed about fracking regulation by the EU: clear and simple policies to understand and achieve; a certain degree of flexibility in terms of environment; national interpretations are becoming a challenge and internal energy market is being jeopardized; public acceptance must be tackled. Furthermore, the EU has an agreed climate-energy policy up to 2020 that must be reached.
The Conservative-led coalition government has promoted ‘fracking’ as an energy revolution to reduce the reliance on the North Sea oil and gas reserves. Shale gas drilling is currently in the exploratory phase in the UK. A number of companies are currently engaged in the process, with the largest known as Cuadrilla Resources.
All proposals for exploratory drilling require planning permission from local authorities. Some have already been embroiled in controversy – Kent County Council was discovered to own £153m worth of shares in companies actively involved in the fracking process. Elsewhere, Cuadrilla, which has been the subject of heavy protests from local residents and environmentalists, withdrew from a potential site near Blackpool, after causing earth tremors while drilling.
However, the company recently acquired a 30-year lease on a site in Balcombe, in West Sussex. The site was the focus of heavy anti-fracking protests in August, with the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament (MP) Caroline Lucas among those arrested, as protesters stopped Cuadrilla’s daily operations by stopping lorries entering the site.
British public opinion about the controversial process is divided, with 40% opposed to it happening near their homes and 40% in favour.
The Minister of Industry, Energy and Tourism Jose Manuel Soria, stated several times ‘Spain cannot afford to lose the race to obtain natural gas.’ Soria always defends fracking techniques combined with an environmental impact statement ‘that any energy exploitation needs.’
In Spain there are many granted permissions requested to investigate the potential gas. The industry estimates that fracking could cover the current Spanish gas needs for 70 years. In contrast, ecologists disagree and believe that it will not last for more than 30 years.
According to a report of Ecologists in Action, most of places allowed to be exploited are limestone aquifers, much more sensitive to this technique due to the ability of this rock for water to circulate. The industry, represented by Shale Gas Spain, ensures that the fracture hydraulic takes place much deeper than those achieved aquifers. They also confirm that the top is covered with steel pipes and high-quality cement to prevent contamination. Its spokesmen acknowledge that the recovered liquid is smaller than the percentage injected, but they sure it has no impact on the ground.
The Department of Energy of the U.S. concludes that Spain has only one-eighth of the amounts offered by the industry. Moreover, there are only potential resources in the Basque-Cantabrian area, not all eight geographic points identified by different companies.
The administration of Rajoy seems to ignore the danger of an energy bubble, as it has been already discussed in the U.S. Boreholes are exhausted and start to show that hydraulic fracturing is more profitable for the construction of infrastructures than for the production of gas. Two laws have been enacted in relation to fracking in Spain so far: the first one includes hydraulic fracturing into the hydrocarbons law and the second one established regulatory criteria for fracking.
The US: an example to follow?
The debate in the U.S. about fracking is as follows: does the environmental benefits of clean-burning natural gas offset methane leaks during drilling and production? Politically speaking, the debate is of disclosure laws and whether there should be state or federally mandated regulations.
30 years ago the Federal Government gave individual states the power to self-regulate fracking while retaining the ability to audit them. Under U.S. law, natural gas producers do not need to disclose what chemicals they use to drill. This is a huge point of contention as the lack of transparency makes it difficult to accurately assess the effects of fracking on drinking water and other environmental issues.
In 2012 President Obama had proposed actions that would require producers to disclose their fracking chemicals, in addition to higher standards for well construction in order to lessen runaway emission of methane. As well as a safer dispensing of the dirty water that accumulates to the surface after drilling.
As of 2015, the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority) will require drillers to control leaks during completions. It is believed, that when leaks are not under control that this is the major source of methane losses in fracking wells.
According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, more than half of the states with fracking activity do not have any sort of disclosure requirements. Although ten states do have some sort of form of disclosure requirements, none provide comprehensive disclosure, and enforcement of state regulations is uneven.
Image credit: Bosc d’Anjou