German governmen pushes fracking approval

Fracking sites. Canada, 2006. [Simon Fraser University/Flickr]

The German government has tabled a draft law permitting fracking in the country, with environmental associations criticising the draft as fragmented and risky, calling on the government to concentrate on implementing the Energiewende, instead. EURACTIV Germany reports.

[Story updated to reflect draft status of the legislation]

After a long debate over the use of fracking technology in Germany, the federal government issued a draft law allowing the controversial gas extraction method under certain conditions and in isolated cases.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks made every effort to dispel concerns over the controversial gas extraction technology. “In this way, we are applying the strictest rules that have ever existed in the fracking industry,” the Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician assured.

It will only be permitted under the strictest conditions and with the highest regard for the environment and drinking water, she said. The earliest possible date for initiation would be in 2019, because sample drillings must first be conducted to gather the necessary knowledge on the technology, Hendricks explained.

New draft law weaker than its predecessor

Still, the law is weak compared to the key points compiled by the Environment and Economic Affairs Ministry last summer. At that time, the measure issued a full prohibition on non-conventional shale gas extraction, with the exception of research-based sample drillings, until the year 2021. Following the prohibition period, the restrictions would be reevaluated based on new research findings.

For this reason, many environmental protectionists remain sceptical.

>>Read: German government upholds fracking ban

“Fracking in shale and coal bed deposits is related to considerable risks for the water table and the stability of the subsoil. Allowing it now is incomprehensible,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, federal managing director of the German environmental relief organisation Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).

Müller-Kraenner said he considers the draft law presented by Hendricks and Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel fragmented and legally dubious. The procedure’s uses for the energy industry are disproportionate to the already foreseeable risks, the DUH director indicated.

“Instead of making efforts to research and support further fossil fuel resources in Germany, the German government should concentrate on consistent implementation of the Energiewende,” he said.

Doubts over independence of the expert commission

The draft law allows fracking in shale and coal bed rock starting at a depth of 3,000 metres. In addition, the method is permitted for testing purposes above 3,000 metres.

A body of six experts selected by the German government will decide whether the risks related to fracking above 3,000 metres are controllable and should be allowed for commercial purposes.

According to the DUH, the German government is delegating the state’s responsibility for protection to a commission whose neutrality is questionable and which is in no way democratically legitimate. Three of the six institutions mentioned have previously expressed their support of the controversial technology.

For fracking in sandstone, which will still be permitted under the draft law, the DUH called for far-reaching improvements.

“We still know far too little about the environmental effects. That is why we need stricter regulations and concrete requirements for fracking in sandstone,” warned Cornelia Nicklas from the DUH.

The draft law should be generally prohibited in all areas of public and private water supply and clear criteria for handling reservoir water and fracking fluids should be established, she said.

No drilling permitted near drinking water facilities

Meanwhile, the Association of Municipal Utilities (VKU) said it fundamentally welcomed the legislative initiative, but called for clear legislative rules for fracking. In the VKU’s view, who’s members provide around 80% of all Germans with drinking water, the planned regulations provide comprehensive protection of drinking water and its resources against the risks related to fracking.

“We need a water protection law that protects resource number 1 – without buts, ands or ifs,” emphasised Michael Beckereit from the VKU. First and foremost, that means that fracking should not be allowed in the vicinity of drinking water facilities.

The VKU also called for improvements to requirements on the treatment of reservoir water and back flow. “To the extent that reservoir water is removed as waste water,” Beckereit said, “this should only occur according to the current status of technology in suitable facilities.”

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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