EU’s chief science advisor gives shale gas go-ahead


The EU’s chief scientific advisor has said that evidence allows the go-ahead for extracting shale gas, the energy source at the centre of a European policy tug-of-war.

The EU executive launched a green paper on 27 March, setting out Europe's energy and climate aims for 2030, with Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger taking a favourable position on shale gas. 

"I am in favour of producing shale gas, particularly for safety reasons, and to reduce gas prices," he said. "In the United States, which is a big producer of shale gas, the price of gas is four times less than in Europe."

Shale gas has triggered an industrial revival in the United States, which the International Energy Agency expects to become almost self-sufficient in oil and gas by 2035.

But crippling production costs, exploration closures, and government-level environmental concerns have seen the industry’s expansion in Europe waver.

>> Read: US ‘shale boost’ provokes EU fears and indecision

EU climate chief circumspect on shale

Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has adopted a less favourable tone on shale gas, believing its extraction in Europe bears little comparison with the United States.

“We do not expect that it will be so easy in Europe: geological conditions are different, and so are environmental rules and the activity of soils,” she told reporters at the launch of the Commission green paper last month.

But Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, contradicted this view and gave a scientific green light to shale.

Speaking at a debate on science and policy-making in Brussels on 9 April, she said: “As with all energy production, there will be risks involved whether that is wind or coal power,” Glover told the audience at the debate, organised by the European Policy Centre, a think tank.

“We should not go into a denial phase. From my point of view the evidence will allow us to go ahead [with shale production]. But in terms of extraction and production there are non-scientific issues to be debated,” Glover said.

Europe 'in the denial phase'

António Fernando Correia de Campos, the Portuguese MEP who chairs the Parliament’s science and technology options assessment panel, also endorsed shale during the debate. Although he said he was not speaking on behalf of any parliamentary group or committee, Correia de Campos said Europe was “in the denial phase” on shale gas.

He said it was clear that within five years Europe would be importing shale gas from the US because it cost a quarter to a fifth of current European gas imports. “We are basing our opinion on the denial paradigm, which is one step behind the precautionary principle,” Correia de Campos said.

Member states remain divided on their approach to shale. Last October, British Chancellor George Osborne announced potential tax breaks for domestic shale. The same month Poland declared its push for the gas, saying it would invest some €12.5 million to develop exploration by 2020.

But large-scale production has proved difficult, with European governments and major energy companies recently suspending or halting exploration, and France has imposed a moratorium on shale gas drilling.

Meanwhile doubts remain amongst campaigners about the safety of shale extraction.

"Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that [extracion] operations and production activities significantly increase the cancer risks for communities living less than half a mile from drilling sites,” Antoine Simon, extractive industries campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, told EURACTIV.

Connie Hedegaard, the commissioner for climate change, told the daily Guardian that shale gas would not be the game-changer that it has been in the US. "We should not fool ourselves," she said. "This is not going to be as cheap as in the US. We have different geology that makes it more tricky [to extract shale gas]. We don't have the same wide open spaces. We pay more attention to what local people think."

“Speaking about safely extracting shale gas is still a wishful thinking. In the US thousands of citizens have been left with serious health problems, including respiratory problems, hormone disruption and cancer, and with their air poisoned and drinking water contaminated,” said Antoine Simon, extractive industries campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

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 pumping liquids and a number of chemical additives under high pressure thereby releasing trapped gas reserves.

While energy companies believe they have found a part of the answer to Europe's energy security problems, the method remains intensely controversial because of its possible environmental risks, including poisoning groundwater and higher greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas.

To proponents, shale gas represents a hitherto untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. 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.

In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of the world's largest economy natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.

  • 2013: European Commission to unveil results of public consultation on unconventional fossil fuels, including shale gas.

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