EU study sparks regulation debate over ‘high-risk’ shale gas

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Tough new regulations could be slapped on the shale gas industry if the EU acts upon legislative and environmental failings identified in its most comprehensive analysis yet of the sector, due to be released today [7 September].

Shale gas drilling poses a ‘high risk’ to human health and the environment that is worse than that posed by other fossil fuels, according to a 300-page report prepared by the EU's environment directorate. It is also currently unregulated. 

The study identifies eight areas of high-risk due to the cumulative effect of multiple shale wells, including the contamination and depletion of ground and surface water, and degradation of biodiversity, land, air quality and seismic conditions.

Water contamination is considered a high risk because of the industry's hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – technique. It involves drilling horizontally to shale deposits at depths of up to 3km, and pumping in large amounts of water, sand and chemical lubricants at high pressure to shatter the brittle rocks.

The sand fills geological pores, preventing the well from collapsing, while the gas migrates upwards, along with some water contaminated by fracking chemicals and other pollutants, including low-levels of naturally radioactive material. 

Because of the health and environmental risks, the study recommends that fracking should only be allowed under strict conditions, and not yet on an industrial scale. No fracking should be be allowed in areas where water is being used for drinking purposes.  

“Do nothing’ does not seem to be an option anymore,” one EU official told EurActiv. “There are barriers, gaps and uncertainties and this is not the best premise to establish a shale gas industry in Europe.”

In a sign of the potential debates still to come, Marek Kłoczko, secretary-general of the Polish Chamber of Commerce, argued that shale gas offered Poland a major opportunity for energy independence and cheap fuel.

“If we don’t want our European economy to be in a permanent recession, we have to be competitive,” he told EurActiv. “Sometimes regulations from Brussels do not solve the problem [that they address].”

Legislative gaps

But the environmental risk asessment – one of three EU reports to be released today (7 September) – contains a list of gaps, uncertainties and barriers in current EU statute spanning four pages.

The Water Framework Directive, for example, does not allow the injection of ‘pollutants’ into groundwater reserves, which the reports authors say may occur in shale wells, depending on their geological character.

Equally, the report’s authors believe that under the Mining Waste Directive, ‘flowback fluids’ – the liquid containing toxic chemicals that returns to the surface after shale drills – could fall foul of the Mining Waste Directive. 

Unlike other fossil fuel extraction industries, shale gas operations would currently be under no obligation to produce the impact assessments demanded by the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. 

That legislation, which applies a single volume threshold only to the industrial extraction of more than 500,000 cubic metres of gas per day – substantially more than shale wells produce – was drawn up before the unconventional fuel was even head of. 

The new EU study recommends that environmental impact assessments should be made mandatory for proposed shale gas operations. An expert forum will address this question in December, before the European Parliament finally deals with it.

Backstage battle

The new reports will add fresh fuel to a backstage battle currently raging over two European Parliament shale gas reports, seen by EurActiv, which should be approved later this month, although their text may change. 

An amended version of the environment committee’s paper currently says that “a thorough analysis of the EU regulatory framework regarding specifically UFF [unconventional fossil fuels] exploration and exploitation is needed.”

It calls on the Commission “to propose, as soon as possible … appropriate measures, including legislative [ones], if necessary.”

The battle over the report’s wording is “fierce”, according to MEP Claude Turmes, the vice-chair of the Green Party in Parliament, although he was still optimistic that his preferred wording would remain.

“Without any new legislation, there is no adequate framework to protect citizens and the environment from shale gas,” he said. “We need the European Commission to work on this.

The amended draft of a separate industry committee report written earlier this summer similarly says that large-scale shale gas extraction “may require a comprehensive adaptation of all the EU’s relevant existing legislation”.

It proposes “an in-depth impact analysis” by the European Commission into the effects of the unconventional fossil fuel.

Three options

Brussels insiders say that the Commission now faces a choice between three options: offering ‘soft guidance’ to industry; amendments to existing legislation, or a standalone instrument such as a new directive. 

This debate may be hard fought. The EU’s energy directorate favours a soft regulatory touch exemplified by a report earlier this year by the Belgian law firm Philippe and Partners, which concluded that no further European legislation  was needed.

But officials within the EU’s environment and climate directorates are more cautious about giving the green light to an industry that faces prohibition in some EU countries due to its environmental implications, which have even been linked to earthquakes.

One EU source contacted by EurActiv echoed concerns voiced in a paper by Britain's influential Chatham House institute last month that the unconventional fossil fuel could in practice substitute for renewables, rather than fossil fuels.

“But it is important not to be reductionist about it because climate change is so pressing now that a transition from coal to gas in the short term is a good thing,” he added, “so long as it does not crowd out renewables in the long term.”

Positions: 

Antoine Simon, shale gas campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said: “This report silences industry rhetoric - shale gas is undeniably a high-risk activity. It threatens the health of local communities, and the environment, while locking Europe into fossil fuel dependency. These risks are a clear sign that a moratorium on this toxic technology in Europe should be a priority for decision makers.”

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, the Liberal vice-chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, was even-handed in his approach.  “There is so much we don’t know about shale gas and we are far from a definitive conclusion,” he said. “I think that the French decision to stop shale gas development was a bit premature because it might under certain circumstances be preferable to coal. But we have to be careful and do a lot more studies.”

He welcomed the EU reports. “I think its very good that the European Commission has made an analysis of gaps in the legislation,” he told EurActiv. “There are a lot of potential dangers to water, the environment and biodiversity that we seriously have to look into. I don’t believe at this moment that a single directive for shale gas is the right approach. We shouldn’t have tunnel vision and instead should look at it in a much more coherent way, taking all the positive and negative effects into account.”

“These studies confirm that the water, air and land-related risks associated with shale gas are high,” said Geert deCock, a policy officer for the environmental pressure group Food and Water Europe. “We particularly welcome the studies’ focus on the cumulative environmental impacts of hundreds of shale gas wells in Europe’s potential shale plays.”

He added: “The studies also identify a number of gaps in the EU's environmental acquis, debunking [the Energy] Commissioner Oettinger’s view that current EU law adequately deals with the risks of fracking.  Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik must now start leading the EU’s effort to – in the absence of unanimous support among EU Member States for a ban on fracking – demand the highest environmental standards of fracking operations.”

Timeline: 
  • September 2012: European Parliament and Industry Committees due to publish shale gas reports
  • 2013: EU may decide to legislate on shale gas.
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