German Environment Minister defends new bill to regulate fracking

Barbara Hendricks [Deutscher Bundestag]

After much debate, the Merkel government has signed off on a draft law that would permit fracking in Germany, causing an uproar among opposition politicians and environmentalists, as well as coalition members. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Just a few months ago, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks sought to ban fracking. But now she defended the law to permit the controversial technique, as the strictest set of regulations ever on the method.

“I am happy that, after a long discussion, we have finally decided on regulations for fracking technology, which has so far been unregulated,” Hendricks said in Berlin.

With the legislative package, the government will be able to restrict fracking to a point where it no longer poses a threat to people or the environment, the Social Democrat pledged.

As long as risks cannot be determined or cannot be conclusively assessed, the gas extraction method will remain forbidden, she stated.

Fracking describes a method of gas extraction in which a mixture of quartz sand, chemicals and water is forced into shale and coal beds with extreme pressure. In this way, the rock is crushed so that fine cracks release gas deposits deep underground.

Estimates indicated that shale and coal bed deposits in Germany could cover demand for over 10 years.

First legal regulation on fracking

So far, there has not been a legal regulation on the controversial extraction method. A first draft failed in 2013 because centre-right MPs argued proposals from the government at the time did not provide adequate water protection.

But the new bill, drawn up by Hendricks and Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel, plans a ban for sensitive areas like water conservation sites as well as restricting fracking to below 3,000 metres.

In addition, the package contains far-reaching restrictions for fracking measures in shale, clay, marl and coal beds. But it does not prohibit commercial fracking under certain conditions.

Disapproval in the coalition

Considerable criticism for the new bill came from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Andreas Mattfeld, a member of the Bundestag who hails from the CDU, rejected the bill as unacceptable, and pointed out that there were nearly 100 critics of the measure in the centre-right CDU/CSU faction alone.

>>Read: Fracking costs outweigh benefits for Germany and Europe, study says

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) also called for changes to the fracking law. Frank Schwabe criticised the influence of a commission created by the bill to be in charge of granting permission to commercial projects.

This commission is a concession to gas companies, he said. “I want the Bundestag to be at the helm and make decisions like that,” said Schwabe.

Hendricks, who had been a devoted critic herself, now made every effort to defend the regulation.

The new regulatory package will not allow anything that has been forbidden in the past, she said. “On the contrary, it will prohibit a great deal that has been possible up till now.”

In reality, the fracking law will introduce strict rules where there have been no clear rules before, the minister assured.

In addition, Hendricks said it is doubtful whether there will ever be a need to conduct fracking in Germany. She indicated that she expects only a few trial drillings over the next few years because these can cost companies around €30 million.

“Highly dubious commission of experts”

But many environmentalists and conservation-minded politicians do not put much stock in Hendrick’s appraisal.

Olaf Tschimpke, head of German environmentalist organisation NABU, said the last few paragraphs make it clear that “fracking can be permitted, through a non-democratically legitimate and highly dubious commission of experts”.

The Bundestag and German states should not allow the federal government to get away with these exceptions.

Schleswig-Holstein’s Environment and Energiewende Minister Robert Habeck also said he considers the fracking law to be inadequate.

“We will do everything in our power as a state government to ensure that fracking actually remains prohibited,” the Green politician emphasised.

Many critics see the government’s decision as a pointless concession to fossil fuel-based energy. The environment and consumer protection organisation German Environmental Relief (DUH) called the move a step backwards for the Energiewende, the country’s long-standing plan to transition to renewable energy sources.

Left Party environment expert Hubertus Zdebel stated that serious steps in the fight against climate change are incompatible with fracking.

“Natural gas extracted through fracking from unconventional sources leaves a catastrophic climate footprint and amounts to an enormous waste of resources. Just as with nuclear energy, one can count on high costs later on down the road, such as earthquake damage, polluted groundwater, destroyed ecosystems and sparse moonscapes caused by fracking drillings within a small area,” Zdebel said.

The Left Party politician called the fracking law a threat to man and the environment, saying it should be completely forbidden.

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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