Poland, long seen as promoting a common European approach to shale gas, has now published a surprising study describing possible EU regulation on the industry as "unfeasible".
Just ahead of its Presidency, Poland had lobbied for shale gas to become a "common European project". But Warsaw would apparently now prefer Brussels to abandon plans to develop the industry.
The Polish Permanent representation to the EU hosted a public event in Brussels on Tuesday (4 October) to present a new study on shale gas, published in Warsaw the day before.
The paper, published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs, is called: "Path to prosperity or road to ruin? Shale gas under political scrutiny." It argues against a European approach to shale gas regulation, distancing itself from the earlier Polish position.
Since last June, when environmental concerns led France to ban hydraulic fracturing – the technology by which shale gas is extracted – there has been no common European approach to the sector. Warsaw is believed to have feared that regulatory restrictions would evolve from a common policy.
The study admits that Poland could be counted on as a European nation where one could speak excitedly about shale gas. In pushing for its development, Poland is not so much motivated by the expected "inflow of petrodollars", but by the political implications for Polish energy security, the authors say.
Optimistic expectations regarding Polish shale gas reserves contributed to the euphoria, the report admits. For the last couple of years, more than a hundred of concessions have been granted for shale gas exploration. The list of beneficiary companies include energy majors such as Chevron, Marathon oil, Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips and ENI.
European debate polarised
However shale gas has remained controversial in Europe with national debates polarised between eager acceptance and total rejection, the study admits.
According to the Polish researchers, this polarisation is largely due to the lack of reliable data about the economic feasibility of shale gas extraction in Europe. Opponents claim this ignorance is sufficient cause to halt such activities.
Shale gas caught the attention of EU institutions only last year, triggering two different responses, the authors argue. One is that member states should introduce legal and regulatory adjustments to address the risk of shale gas exploration. The other approach was in favour of EU-wide legislation.
"What seems obvious from the EU level becomes less so from the perspective of an individual member state," write the authors, who claim that for Central Europe, "shale gas should be seen as a local or regional game-changer".
The authors take stock of the public debate in various European countries including France, where the Parliament has banned hydraulic fracturing.
"Because of the complexity and breadth of this debate, it seems unfeasible to consider introducing a comprehensive legal or regulatory framework [on shale gas] within the EU," they conclude.
Shale gas is an 'unconventional' fossil fuel that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. Until recently, no method of safely transporting it to the surface existed.
However, 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.
In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of the world's largest economy natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.