Oettinger tells Germany to keep options open on fracking

Günther Oettinger. Lauchringen, 2009. [Bernd Glasstetter/Flickr]

Europe could eventually get a tenth of its power needs via shale gas fracking, if it can overcome reservations such as those voiced in recommendations from two German cabinet ministers, the European Union’s energy commissioner was quoted as saying.

Günther Oettinger, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, told the BZ am Sonntag newspaper that Germany should keep its options open when EU states such as Britain and Poland appear willing to exploit shale gas.

“I estimate that Europe has the potential to secure about a tenth of our needs this way in the long term,” he told the news periodical, according to an excerpt from its Sunday edition, noting that this would help Europe rely less on energy imports at a time of tension with Russia, a major source of gas.

Companies including ExxonMobil Corp and BASF SE’s oil and gas arm Wintershall have pushed to explore possibilities for fracking in Germany.

The two German cabinet members responsible for preparing legislation on fracking due this year, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, circulated proposed guidelines among members of parliament on Friday.

“Unconventional fracking won’t be permitted,” said Hendricks, who like Gabriel is from the Social Democrats, junior coalition partners of Merkel’s conservatives. They are expected to present their thoughts to the cabinet in coming days.

>> Read: Fracking debate intensifies in Germany

Hendricks was contrasting the new shale gas fracking methods being used in the United States with conventional natural gas exploitation from deep deposits. The ministers propose preventing the fracking of deposits less than 3,000 metres below the surface via tougher laws protecting the quality of water.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water and chemicals at high pressure through drill holes to prise open rocks containing gas. Many Germans oppose it due to environmental concerns, in particular fears about the possible contamination of drinking water.

But German industry, worried that competitiveness is being damaged by rising energy costs at home combined with lower prices in the United States due to the fast expansion of fracking there, has become ever keener to exploit shale gas reserves.

Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences (BGR) two years ago put the country’s shale gas potential between 0.7 trillion and 2.3 trillion cubic metres.

Oettinger has previously warned Germany not to dismiss shale gas, arguing the technology would lessen reliance on Russian gas imports and help sustain manufacturing activity.

>> Read: Oettinger advises Germany on fracking, warns of climate overacting

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 that could strengthen Europe's energy security. At the moment, the continent depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in recent years.

To detractors fracking is a hazardous and highly-polluting fossil fuel.

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