Fracking debate intensifies in Germany

Green MEPs and anti-fracking activitists pose with fracking flavoured water outside the European Parliament. 2012 [greensefa/Flickr]

Green MEPs and anti-fracking activists pose with fracking flavoured water outside the European Parliament. Brussels, 2012. [greensefa/Flickr]

Sigmar Gabriel hopes to introduce key points for the regulation of fracking in Germany before the Bundestag convenes for the summer. But critics claim the controversial gas extraction method is rightfully banned in Germany, warning of pollution, and claiming it would not bolster the country’s energy independence. EURACTIV Germany reports.

In Germany, fracking is currently under heated debate. Over the course of the Ukraine crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised the possibility of installing support methods for shale gas as an alternative to Russian gas.

Responding to this call, Vice Chancellor and Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced the prospect of drafting legal provisions to regulate the technology, which is currently not allowed in Germany.

But instead of hailing diversification efforts, critics accused Gabriel of allowing himself to be controlled by industry and ignoring the risks involved.

The unconventional process of shale gas fracking involves large quantities of water and sand, but also chemicals, pressed into a drill hole to release natural gas from deep layers of porous rock. One of the biggest fears of this method is that groundwater could be polluted by partially toxic or carcinogenic substances left over from the procedure.

But over the weekend, Gabriel covered his tracks: the fracking technology used in the United States and Canada, he said, will not be adopted in Germany. Together with the Environment Ministry, he said efforts are under way to tighten legal provisions in mining and water law.

At that time, Gabriel insisted that he hopes to draft key points before the summer break and have it up for approval by Fall of this year.

Eldorado for industry

As a result, the question of a ban has still not been ruled out. Fracking seems to be too lucrative for supporters.

But no one is certain as to how much gas lies in Germany’s deeply buried shale deposits. Estimates from Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) indicate up to 2.3 billion cubic metres of recoverable shale gas. This is an Eldorado for industry representatives: more gas and oil means more profit and the promise of lower prices for consumers.

With this in mind, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) is strongly emphasising that the discussion about gas recovery methods should be permitted.

“In light of the Ukraine crisis and the hurdles related to the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), fracking is quite promising. Germany needs more energy independence”, said a representative from the BDI in a statement for

Independence from imports?

This argument is also convincing to the German government, which would gladly reduce the net import cost of oil, gas and hard coal amounting to roughly €90 million.

Here, the United States seems to be a successful role model – at least at first glance. “Drill, baby, drill!” were the words of US presidential candidate John McCain, hoping to boost the country’s energy independence.

And now it seems President Barack Obama has picked up the same motto. A significant share of the country’s economic recovery after the 2008 crisis can be attributed to cheaper energy.

Chemical waste in the groundwater and leaky drill holes

But not all risks associated with this method of gas extraction have been evaluated. Only a few test drills have been carried out in Germany so far.

The German government’s Council of Experts on Environmental Issues (SRU) emphasised in a study last year that “considerable questions remain open regarding the risks related to unconventional fracking”.

Gabriel repeatedly emphasised that strict constraints would accompany approval: an environmental impact assessment and a ban for water protection areas.

But a recent campaign conducted by the platform Campact titled “Stop Fracking” received over 300,000 signatures. It was a clear message to those who hope to get fracking approved in Germany that they will meet considerable resistance.

“Natural gas is praised as an efficient, abundant and low-CO2 energy source. But fracking requires risky processes that can have devastating effects on health and the environment,” said Chairman of the Greens in the European Parliament, Rebecca Harms.

Many unanswered questions

The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) also rejects unconventional fracking.

Ulf Sieberg, energy efficiency expert at NABU, indicated a study on fracking ordered by the Federal Environment Agency in 2011: “The second part of this report, of which we received a not-yet-published result in January, does not nearly answer all of the questions posed by the study,” he told The results from some less regional research projects could not so easily be applied to other locations because the seismic conditions differed among various locations, Sieberg warned.

But he did not want to accept the argument that fracking leads to greater independence from imports. The best way to reach independence, he said, is through energy efficiency in the transportation and buildings sector as well as developing renewables.

Supply security even without fracking

Gabriel was also confronted with sceptical voices from within his own ranks.

“As long as toxic substances that pollute the groundwater are used in unconventional fracking, it will not receive the approval of the SPD,” said Dirk Becker, an energy expert for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), in a statement for

And Becker is not nervous about adverse effects on the German energy supply: “The shale gas deposits are not absolutely necessary to secure Germany’s supply, as there is more of a surplus at the moment,” Becker said.

There are trials in Canada, the SPD politician indicated, where fracking takes place without using toxic substances. Germany should wait on the results of these tests, he advised.

Becker also considers it rather unlikely that Russia would cut off gas supplies. The energy giant is economically dependent on revenue from gas sales, he explained. In addition, Becker said Germany could easily receive more natural gas from Norway, for example. Meanwhile, a new natural gas pipeline is under construction that will run from Azerbaijan all the way to Italy, he pointed out. It is expected to supply the European market by 2019.

Gas remains an important resource

Whether it is extracted by fracking or imported, Germany will continue to rely on gas in the long-term, said Moritz Bonn, environmental and energy expert from the Centre for European Policy (CEP), speaking with

“In the future, gas will be especially important for power generation – even after expansion of renewable energy sources,” he said. Because gas power plants are very flexible in terms of power generation, Bonn explained that they could be useful to fill gaps in supply.

Bonn also assumes that Germany would only be able to benefit from its own shale gas for around ten years. If it desires greater independence from Russian reserves, Germany should diversify its supply and receive gas from more countries, he said. Gas could be transferred from the Caspian Sea, for example, through Turkey.

In principle, liquid gas imports through special terminals can be received from all over the world, the CEP expert indicated. “But to do this”, Bonn said, “infrastructure would have to be further developed within the European Union.”

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 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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