Shale gas cannot be seen yet as a game changer in Europe as it is in the United States, where roughly 50% of the country's needs are met by developing unconventional gas. The conclusion was reached by international experts at a public event held in Brussels yesterday (7 June).

To illustrate the possible impact of developing shale gas in Europe, Don Gauthier of the US Geological Survey said that in an area the size of the Benelux countries, there would have to be up to 6,000 wells, an impact that would probably attract environmental opposition.

Speaking at a conference organised by IFRI, the French Institute for Foreign Relations, Gauthier explained that the reason for such concentration was that unlike natural gas, unconventional gas needs a high density of wells, including horizontal wells. Conventional gas costs less, as it is extracted at much higher volumes from only a few vertical wells.

Citing the US experience, Gauthier further explained that operators need to reach agreements with land owners. This, he said, was an easy task in Texas, but much more difficult in the New York area, where in his words "a lot of debate" on water issues had been taking place.

One of the speakers said Europe is more densely populated and has more infrastructure than the United States.

The development of shale gas, which sees chemicals added to the water to facilitate the underground fracturing process that releases natural gas, is a concern to environmentalists.

Fracturing fluids, designed to free gas trapped between layers of shale, are developed by companies to suit the geologic characteristics of each individual site.

The wide variety of rock types, experts explained, means that a chemical developed for a site in the US would have little if any application elsewhere. They were answering a question from EurActiv.

The countries where shale gas is presumed to exist in the EU are Germany, Poland, Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary and the UK.

Poland in focus

The conference focused on the development of shale gas in Poland, a country that uses coal as its predominant source of energy and must make a huge effort to improve its energy mix and reduce CO2 emissions.

Ewa Zalevska, director of the Geology and Geological Concessions Department at the Polish Environment Ministry, admitted that Warsaw was harbouring major ambitions to develop shale gas, the switch towards which she described as "the 21st Century's gold rush".

Between 2007 and 2010, Poland granted 58 concessions for shale gas development to US giants such as Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips, Zalekska said. A map, which she displayed on a screen, showed a wide area where shale gas is expected to be found, stretching from the Polish Baltic Sea in a wide diagonal across the country to its south-east.

According to estimates, Poland's shale gas reserves stand at 1.4 to three trillion cubic metres, enough to satisfy the country's needs for the next 100-200 years, Zalevska said. However, she was quick to add that there was not yet enough evidence to prove this.

Indeed, no shale gas fields have been documented in Poland yet, she revealed.

The first estimation, she said, was due in 4-5 years and the first potential production in 10-15 years.

Hans Van Der Loo of Royal Dutch Schell concurred that unconventional gas reserves in Europe had yet to be proven and warned that it was not certain to prove commercially successful.

Some firms might end up losing money, he cautioned.