Germany, a country struggling hard to find energy resources to replace nuclear power, has taken a step towards allowing the tapping of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a practice contested by the opposition and public opinion.
Angela Merkel’s government made public on 26 February a draft law allowing the development of shale gas through fracking, though under certain conditions.
Fracking involves pumping vast amounts of water and chemicals at high pressure through drill holes, which together with vertical drilling helps prop open shale rocks to release trapped gas.
The draft legislation introduces environmental safeguards by outlawing fracking in protected areas and near drinking wells, a ban that would apply to 14% of German territory. In addition, environmental impact studies will be made mandatory for any projects.
The proposed restrictions are unlikely to appease fracking opponents. The Greens and the Social Democrats asked for a moratorium on shale gas development until better techniques are found. Fracking is politically and environmentally contentious ahead of the 22 September national elections.
Meanwhile, German industry circles have put pressure on the government to develop the resource as soon as possible, arguing it would boost the economy. The United States has seen a surge in manufacturing in part due to the inexpensive energy provided by shale gas.
The German chemical giant BASF is in favour of a legal framework for fracking in Germany. Its chief executive Kurt Bock described the government decision as “important”, saying he hoped it would lead to a more objective discussion, the Financial Times reported.
The German soil is believed to contain up to 2,300 billion cubic metres (bcm) of shale gas. Germany consumes annually some 86 bcm of gas, about the half of it imported from Russia.
Shale gas appears to be an important part of the debate on Germany’s energy mix. Having decided in 2011 to close all its nuclear power plants by 2022, the country is scrambling to expand renewable power and find other sources of energy.
However, the construction of new high-voltage power lines to connect wind turbines in the North Sea to the industrial areas of the centre and south of the country has sparked opposition and legal challenges to the new electricity lines.
Several EU countries support shale gas development, although at various degrees. On the other end of the spectrum, France and Bulgaria fiercely oppose shale gas development.
In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.
Shale gas is an 'unconventional' fossil fuel that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. By pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure via a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', energy companies believe they have found a part of the answer to Europe's energy security problems.
The method remains intensely controversial because of its possible environmental risks, including poisoning groundwater and higher greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas.
To proponents, shale gas represents a hitherto untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. At the moment the continent depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in recent years.
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