Commission should stop buying the shale gas hype

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

After ENI's abandonment of shale gas exploration in Poland last week, the EU should look to lead in clean energy rather than chasing unrealistic and uneconomic shale gas pipe dreams, argues Geert Decock. 

Geert Decock is a policy officer for Food and Water Europe, an environmental pressure group.

In the year 2035, the Commission predicts that commercial-scale production of shale gas will be delivering 77 bcm of natural gas to the EU every year. In other words, 10% of the EU’s annual gas consumption in that distant future. How does the Commission know? Because the International Energy Agency said so. And how does the International Energy Agency know? Because the fossil fuel industry and fracking-friendly governments have been selling that message for a while now.

Food & Water Europe campaigns with national groups for a ban on fracking in Europe, and is dismayed that the Commission would lend credibility to such a – in the words of the draft – "best-case scenario". Perhaps this is a “best case” for industry, but not at all for the communities living in Europe’s prospective shale plays. They should get ready for a major drilling spree in their backyards: industry would need to drill approximately 150 wells/month, which is about 2000 wells/year. Given the sharp decline curves in shale gas wells (declines of 60% in the 1st year), a stable contribution of shale gas to the EU’s gas consumption would commit the EU to drilling some 20,000 wells over a decade or so.

Where will this shale gas be produced? According to the IEA, almost half (or 34 bcm) of that total volume of 77 bcm is going to come from Poland. How likely is this? Just last week, yet another international company (ENI) abandoned the search for shale gas in Poland, following the exit of Exxon, Marathon Oil and Talisman. Polish state-controlled companies have failed to devise a joint strategy to make exploration work. A recent report by the Supreme Audit Office of Poland reported the management of the shale gas file by the Polish authorities as marred by corruption, administrative delays and poor environmental monitoring of this high-risk industry.

In other words, it is highly unlikely that Poland will ever produce significant quantities of shale gas. And definitely not 34bcm per year by 2035. The Commission’s endorsement of the IEA’s extravagant figure even goes beyond some of the industry’s own estimates. Last week, BP's 2035 Energy Outlook, forecast that Europe will be "expanding unconventional supplies reaching 3.7 Bcf/d by 2035". Which is 38 bcm/y.

Legitimizing a production scenario that is almost double industry’s own projections is not a useful conversation starter on the role of shale gas in Europe. Rather, the Commission Communication should refrain from naming any specific levels of production and acknowledge that nobody knows.

On one issue, both the IEA and BP can agree. Developing shale gas is no ‘get out of jail free’ card for the climate. The IEA’s ‘Golden Rules’ scenario still puts the Earth’s climate on “a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 [°C] in the long-term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target”. Even BP agrees that the global development of shale gas will not result in declining emissions, admitting that global emissions in 2035 will be about double what they were in 1990. This projection doesn’t even take into account that the carbon footprint of shale gas could be on par with coal

To conclude, developing shale gas in Europe is a high-risk strategy, both from an economic and an environmental perspective. The geological reserve size of shale gas in Europe is unknown and the commercial viability of shale gas extraction is far from guaranteed. If shale gas were to become profitable (higher gas prices may help), it would still require an unprecedented drilling effort, which local populations will fight tooth and nail. And for good reason. 

The Commission has a leadership role to play: it should propose measures that play to Europe’s strengths, rather than a feeble attempt to copy the American ‘drill, baby, drill’ strategy. For the 2030 targets, ambitious renewables and energy efficiency targets are the only realistic no-regret options to deliver lower carbon emissions, reduced import dependency and longer-term stability of energy prices for Europeans.

The Commission needs abandon its selective hearing that is only receptive to industry messaging. If the Barroso Commission wants to save whatever democratic legitimacy it ever had, it should start listening to the messages in its own Eurobarometer survey: 70% and 28% of Europeans prioritize renewables and energy efficiency respectively  as opposed to 9% who believe that shale gas should be prioritised. That would be a more useful conversation starter.

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