Fracking costs outweigh benefits for Germany and Europe, study says

Fracking would only have negative consequences for Europe and Germany if it is approved, a recent study shows. [Erick Gustafson/Flickr]

For only a ten year supply of energy, fracking in Europe would contaminate drinking water, cause severe environmental damage and create vast industrial landscapes, says a study on fracking, as the German government pushes to legalise the controversial extraction method. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The environmental impact of shale gas extraction in Germany and Europe are in no way proportionate to the raw materials gained using this method of drilling, a new study argues.

“We should not compare the conditions in Germany with those in the United States,” said Werner Zittel, the author of the study released by the NGO Energy Watch Group.

For one thing, Germany is much more densely populated, he said, increasing the risk for people and the environment near extraction sites.

To date, few scientifically sound analyses are available on the effects of fracking on people and the environment. But severe environmental damage can be observed in the United States, where fracking is already widespread.

Some scientific investigations have also found evidence that fracking has increased the danger of earthquakes in the United States. And the University of Innsbruck recently discovered that fracking pollutes the air with gases that are harmful to human health and the climate.

Not cost-effective

But the risks for man and nature are not the only important arguments against the controversial technique. Its cost-effectiveness is also questionable, said Green Party politician Hans-Josef Fell, president of the Energy Watch Group and author of the Renewable Energies Act from the year 2000.

“Unlike in the United States, which is the only country conducting fracking at a commercially relevant scale, the method cannot achieve a sufficient result from extraction in Europe,” Fell said.

First, Germany lacks the infrastructural conditions for fracking. Turning the areas used into industrial landscapes, maintaining streets as well as storage and transport of the special sand required for fracking, are some of the investments the country would have to make.

All in all, Fell points out, it is a disproportionate amount of money to spend, for a technique that is only likely to supply Europe with energy for ten years, according to current estimates, and for a method that rapidly spreads to cover more and more area. 

Falling environmental standards?

Despite widespread public concern, the German government introduced a bill in early February which would allow the controversial extraction method in certain cases.

The new measure, drafted by Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, would permit fracking more than 3,000 meters underground for scientific purposes and only with approval from the respective mining and water authorities. If trial drilling is successful, fracking technology could be allowed for commercial use in isolated cases, but only under the strictest conditions, and with approval from an independent commission of experts.

Now, fracking critics fear the results of the measure could be similar to those in the United States a few years ago.

In 2005, President George W. Bush loosened environmental laws to allow fracking. Gas extraction spiked as a result, but the hope that this could create a decade-long trend of ever higher yields did not materialise in the US.

For some time now, the American fracking industry has been suffering significant losses.

Fracking in a double trap

Energy analyst Fell described this as a “double trap” that the fossil fuel-based energy sector is stuck in. “Natural gas trading in the United States has been declining since 2009,” Fell said, and the decline of oil and gas prices is to blame for the downward trend.

Such conditions result in bankruptcies in the fracking industry, which largely finances the costly and extensive drilling process with loans it cannot repay. This, however, is only one of the traps the industry falls into.

The other risk comes from the opposite situation, amid growing energy prices due to a shortage of raw materials. Though fracking is more likely to pay off in this case, such phases see more investment in renewable energy sources. The result is an increase in competition for conventional energy extraction.

Despite the ecological and economic dangers, countries such as Germany, the UK and Poland, and the European Commission actively support fracking – a mistake, according to Fell.

World is badly prepared for growing shortage of fossil fuel-based energy

“It is completely incomprehensible that government policy in support of fracking predominates from Brussels to London and all the way to Berlin, at the burden of environmental protection and against the will of the population affected. Meanwhile, this behaviour is putting more and more pressure on the expansion of renewables,” Fell said. The international community is far from being prepared for the declining availability of conventional raw materials, he warned.

Two of the arguments used most often by fracking supporters, the loss of jobs in the gas industry and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, are also something Andy Gheorghiu does not accept.

“6 to 7 percent of primary energy in Germany is currently being imported from Russia. Meanwhile, the share of renewable energy sources is already at 10 to 12 percent,” he said.

This is why it is urgent to continue expanding the area for renewables, creating jobs and more energy independence.

“Though the entire world is talking about climate protection, it did not come because fossil fuel-based energy sources are still predominantly used,” Gheorghiu explained. In response, he stated, the EU set the goal to reduce the use of fossil fuel-based energy by at least 80% over the next 35 years.

Big energy companies stand to profit most

Hubertus Zdebel, environment specialist for the Left Party’s faction in the Bundestag, saw the study as an opportunity to issue renewed criticism of the German government’s fracking policy. “Under the current allocation practices for licenced areas in Germany, the only ones who will profit short-term from growth in this kind of natural gas are big energy companies like ExxonMobil, Wintershall and GdF-Suez. [These companies] have declared a race for shale gas and already divided up entire regions among themselves.”

Still, a public, economic and energy policy interest in the extraction of unconventional gas deposits in Germany is not visible, Zdebel said. “Instead of continuing to intensify gas extraction,” the Left Party politician said,  “we need sustainable solutions for our energy needs.”

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.

It is mined via hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", the process of breaking apart layers of shale by horizontally pumping liquids and a number of volatile and toxic chemical additives under high pressure thereby releasing trapped gas reserves.

To proponents, shale gas represents an untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. To detractors it is a hazardous and highly-polluting fossil fuel.

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