German government upholds fracking ban

German environmental protectionists gather to protest fracking in the Saale riverbed and elsewhere. [Uwe Hiksch/Flickr]

German environmental protectionists gather to protest fracking in the Saale riverbed and elsewhere. [Uwe Hiksch/Flickr]

Drilling for shale gas remains under an unlimited ban, said German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, dismissing media reports of government intentions to soften the fracking ban. But she did not rule out certain “rare” exceptions. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“In general, fracking with environmentally toxic substances is prohibited,” explained German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks on Monday (17 November) speaking with Deutschlandfunk radio.

“That is also what we determined in the coalition agreement and this ban absolutely does not expire,” the social democrat said.

Over the weekend, Der Spiegel reported that the German government was planning to soften its ban on commercial fracking.

The news magazine wrote that trial drilling was possible if expert committees made up of at least six scientists showed no concerns.

In addition, the report indicated intentions to omit a paragraph stating that only fracking deeper than 3,000 metres would be permitted. A corresponding measure was expected to be passed through the Bundestag this year, Der Spiegel’s article read.

The compromise was supposedly mediated by Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier, at the initiation of the economic wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Mining, Chemicals and Energy Trade Union and the Federation of German Industries.

The Bundestag’s factions are currently in deliberations over a measure on fracking. “Once these agreements are concluded, the draft law will go into consultations among the departments and then it will soon be ripe for the cabinet and be approved,” explained deputy government spokesperson Christiane Wirtz on Monday.

But Hendricks dismissed Der Spiegel’s report. Commercial fracking above 3,000 metres will not be permitted, she told Deutschlandfunk.

The German government’s expert commission has the possibility to express its opinion, she indicated, “but the ban is still valid: fracking is prohibited for a depth less than 3,000 metres,” Hendricks emphasised. Trial drilling can be conducted for scientific reasons, but only without the use of water polluting fracking substances, the Environment Minister said.

A spokesman of the Environment Ministry explained on Monday that the commission is charged with the task of advising decision-makers: “A recommendation is made on the basis of science and technology but it is not binding in any way. It can declare a recommendation for fracking or it can do the opposite. But water law authorities in the regions are the ones who decide whether or not to permit fracking. The commission does not change anything in this regard.”

Within the coalition, Hendricks said she pushed for an unlimited ban on fracking at the time, attempting “to only permit it under very rare exceptions.”

At the same time, she did not rule out the prospect that gas fracking could be allowed in Germany at some point in time. “If, at an unforeseeable time, it can be scientifically proven that [fracking] is completely harmless, then it may no longer be permanently forbidden.”

The Environment Ministry’s spokesman also did not consider it impossible for fracking to be permitted at a later date. “The state of science and research is not static; it is constantly evolving. That is why it would be completely wrong to set in stone such a ban on commercial fracking. That is neither how the state of science nor technology work in a democracy,” the spokesman explained.

The fracking process uses chemicals to release gas from shale deposits underground. But environmental protectionists are concerned over possible pollution in the groundwater.

In the United States, the fracking boom created a drop in energy prices, boosting the economy. In the meantime the branch has been put under considerable pressure amid quickly falling oil prices.

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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