US ‘shale boost’ provokes EU fears and indecision


This article is part of our special report Europe’s Industry : Halting the Decline.

SPECIAL REPORT / A US industrial boost following its ability to tap abundant shale gas reserves is provoking fears that imperilled energy-intensive European businesses will find it harder than ever to compete.

But calls for the EU to deliver a ‘silver bullet’ and emulate the US by tapping shale gas through ‘fracking’ (see background) remain controversial because of environmental and logistical concerns.

Partly due to its shale reserves, the United States is expected to become almost self-sufficient in oil and gas by 2035 and will overtake Russia in gas production by 2015 and Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2017, a recent International Energy Agency forecast shows.

>> Read: US can become world's biggest oil producer in a decade, says IEA

Advances in drilling and fracturing techniques enabling easier access to gas supplies have led to significant falls in US gas prices since the start of 2010, whilst European prices remain stubbornly high.

Industrial manufacturers have announced investments of more than $90 billion (€68 billion) in the United States to take advantage of its cheap natural gas, according to calculations that underline the revolutionary impact of shale gas on US industrial growth.

Astonishing impact on the US economy

Petrochemicals, fuel, fertiliser and steel companies, attracted by cheap energy are amongst those committed to multi-billion dollar investments, according to Dow Chemical, which has announced a €3 billion investment in Texas and Louisiana and calculated the total value of US industrial investments at $90 billion or more, the Financial Times reported in December.

The development has spurred fear amongst concerned European manufacturers that they will be unable to compete in energy intensive sectors. It is clear that industry such as steelmaking, currently slumping in the EU, is shifting towards the United States after decades of decline.

Nomura analyst Neil Sampat pointed out that steel giant ArcelorMittal has almost no further capital spending planned in Europe for either steel production or iron-ore mining, explaining: “Gradually, the company is changing its geographical exposure to North America from Europe.”

Gordon Moffat, the director-general of Eurofer, the European Steel Association, said: “It's quite astonishing the impact that shale has had, I think we're going to see the re-industrialisation of the United States. We're already seeing transfers of production from Europe to the United States: it's already clear in the petrochemical sector. And it's also happening in the steel industry.”

A wake-up call for Europe

“Shale gas is leading to a situation where the US has a much higher level of energy security than in the past, as well as lower energy costs,” said the European Policy Centre’s chief economist, Fabian Zuleeg.

This is clearly encouraging American manufacturing, said Zuleeg, and represents “a wake-up call to Europe that we also need to get our act together on energy policy”.

“We need to assure an affordable, secure energy supply across Europe, with a single market for electricity,” Zuleeg added.

If analysts agree with the diagnosis, they are unsure of the remedy, especially relating to any plans for Europe to follow the US example on shale, with the continent constrained by different geography and attitudes.

Although he believes that shale gas represents a silver bullet against crisis-hit industries in America, and that it could perform the same role in Europe, Eurofer’s Moffat acknowledged the difficulties.

“The US is perhaps better placed to exploit shale gas because of where it is located, outside population centres, whereas in Europe, which does have shale gas, it's more complicated because it is closer to populated areas and we are more concentrated with our population,” Moffat explained.

Caution surrounds shale in Europe

Europe has taken a far more cautious approach partly because of the difficulties posed by population density, but also in response to environmental risks and fears, which have led to countries such as France and Bulgaria banning shale exploration.

An influential report – Shale gas: unconventional and unwanted – published by environmental group Friends of the Earth last September, claimed Europe risks side-lining its vision for a more sustainable, low-carbon energy future, unless it permanently closes its doors to fossil fuels like shale gas.

Zuleeg encapsulated the ambivalence of the European response, saying: “This does not necessarily mean the EU should go down the route of shale gas, although we should also not dismiss it out-of-hand.”

The United Kingdom lifted its own ban on shale gas exploration on 13 December, despite environmental fears, as it aims to become a European leader in the sector.

UK gives green light to shale exploration

The UK approval of shale gas fracking came some 18 months after its own authorities halted the unconventional exploration process after it set off earth tremors at one site. Shale reserves are nevertheless viewed as a way to counter the UK's fall in natural gas production.

The European Parliament rejected a ban on shale gas on 21 November and asked for a robust regulatory regime to address environmental concerns.

The Commission is meanwhile expected to come up with a framework for managing risks relating to shale gas this year.

Whether through efficient shale exploration, or otherwise, Zuleeg is convinced that secure energy prices are key to European industrial recovery.

“Investment in pan-European energy transmission [smart grids] is desperately needed if we want to bring renewables on line to a greater degree and create more security of supply, as well as reducing costs,” he said.

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.

However, by pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure via a technique known as hydraulic fracturing - or 'fracking' - energy companies believe they have found a part of the answer to Europe's energy security.

The method remains intensely controversial because of its possible environmental risks, including groundwater poisoning, earthquakes and higher greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas.

In the United States, shale gas already accounts for 16% of natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.

  • 2013: possible EU legislation on shale gas

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