This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.
German environmental experts doubt that developing shale gas is economically profitable and worthwhile for the country's energy transition. They also question the technology of fracking and call for a European Environmental Impact Assessment Procedure to be adopted. EURACTIV Germany reports.
Experts at the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) called for their analysis to be used as an input for the European fracking debate.
Extracting shale gas through fracking is not essential for the German Energiewende, the energy transition policy stemming from the decision to close down all nuclear reactors by 2022, the SRU contends.
The scientists advising the German government advocate caution regarding the new technology. Under no circumstances should it be used for commercial production of shale gas, because in their perspective there are "serious gaps of knowledge about its environmental impact".
Fracking should merely be used in pilot projects, with a compulsory assessment of its environmental effects and with "close scientific monitoring". These kinds of demonstration projects should be planned and implemented in a transparent way involving the public. In accordance with the polluter pays principle, the resulting costs should be borne by the extracting industry, the scientists argue.
So far, there is almost no legislation in Germany regarding fracking. The Federal government was planning to pass a fracking law this year. However, days ago the coalition has withdrawn the draft legislation due to internal opposition. Hence, the bill shall be adopted during the next legislative period, said Volker Kauder, chairman of the centre-right CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag.
Little potential, high costs
Taking into account all necessary safety requirements, the potential of exploitable shale gas in Germany is so small that it would have no impact on regional energy prices, the SRU experts pointed out.
"We believe that the potential of fracking gas is too small and that the production costs are very high," explained Martin Faulstich, chair of the advisory council, during the presentation of the SRU study on 31 May in Berlin.
The experts reject the frequently expressed argument of fracking supporters on the assumed competitive advantage of the United States due to the shale gas exploration.
"The competitiveness of the US economy does not stem from fracking," said SRU member Karin Holm-Müller, adding that only in very few industries energy prices would have a significant impact on its competitiveness. In most industries, for instance in engineering, energy costs account only for 2% of total production costs.
"One should bear in mind that compared to the euro, the US dollar lost 30% of its value since 2002. This fact provides a much better explanation for the increased US competitiveness than does fracking gas," Holm-Müller added.
"The United States are definitely extracting shale gas on a large scale. However, it is uncertain how long they will continue to do so. It is quite possible that, we witness currently a bubble which could burst in a few years," added Faulstich. Moreover, since there is no complete life cycle analysis yet, the environmental experts question whether the fracking gas' carbon footprint is in fact smaller than that of coal.
German reasoning for a European debate
The SRU deems its critical evaluation of the risks and benefits of fracking to be a contribution to the ongoing controversy in Europe.
"Our reasoning is applicable to the European dimension," SRU-member Christian Calliess told EURACTIV Germany. According to the expert, the precautionary principle is as firmly embedded in the European treaties as it is in the German Constitution.
"The European Commission has to deal with the precautionary principle and draw the consequences. The Environmental Impact Assessment Procedure is a European piece of legislation that has to be adapted and specified," Calliess argued.
There is at least one simple reason for an amendment to the existing legislation to be adopted: shale gas demonstration projects are not covered by the current legislation, since its extraction volume is below the required quantity that triggers the EU regulation, he explained.
"Something has to be done. Our case for pilot projects does apply to the European level. Whether our recommendations will gain a majority in Council and Parliament remains to be seen", Calliess said.
A common framework for risk management
The matter is highly controversial in Europe. Poland, for instance, is considered to be strongly in favour of fracking. On the other extreme, in France and Bulgaria, shale gas exploration is prohibited by moratorium.
The attempt to adopt fracking across the EU failed in November 2012 in the European Parliament. MEPs called for a "stable regulatory framework". Before the end of this year, the Commission will therefore draft a framework for risk management for the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels. The EU executive has carried out a public consultation on the issue.