Europe abandons hopes of US-style shale gas revolution

Shale gas well_smaller.jpg

This article is part of our special report Industrial Renaissance.

Shale gas has had a “minimal impact” on the US’s manufacturing industry, and will have even less significance for Europe, according to a new report by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). In Europe, industrialists are abandoning hopes of a similar revolution, at least in the short- to medium-term.

The IDDRI report’s findings echo a warning from the UK business minister, Vince Cable, earlier this month that shale gas will not be a reality for at least a decade.

“Shale is a possible long-term resource, but we do not yet know,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “I want to tell people to get realistic about it.”

According to the report by the Paris-based IDDRI think tank, the US shale boom has contributed to cheaper household energy prices and helped the competitiveness of gas-intensive manufacturing sectors such as plastics, petrochemicals and fertilisers.

But these sectors only account for about 1.2% of US GDP and 3.3% of all manufacturing, and IDDRI estimates the maximum long-term effect of shale gas on US GDP at around 0.84%.

“There is thus no evidence that shale gas is driving an overall manufacturing renaissance in the US,” the study says.

Shale gas could play a positive short-term role in helping Eastern European countries to wean themselves off imported fuel from Russia, and develop their own infrastructure.

But in terms of revitalising Europe’s manufacturing sector and economy as a whole, the report’s authors conclude that the shale gas effect would be “negligible”. By 2035, shale gas is estimated to be meeting no more than between 3-10% of EU gas demand.

“It is unlikely that the EU will repeat the US experience in terms of the scale of unconventional oil and gas production,” the report warns, citing uncertainties about the size of Europe’s shale deposits.

In the US, around 130 shale wells were drilled a month in the decade up tp 2010, compared to an all-in total of 50 exploratory shale drills in the EU so far.

Compared to the US, Europe’s energy service industry and rig counts are much smaller; its geology – and land access – are less accommodating; public acceptance is less of a given; urban density is far higher; and environmental regulations are more stringent. This, IDDRI say, would have a knock-on effect on the industry’s profitability here.

Industrialists want facts about shale gas in Europe

Among industrialists too, there are doubts that the US shale gas revolution can be replicated in Europe. BASF, the German chemical giant, says it is too early to say whether shale gas exploitation is economically feasible on the old continent.

“We always say that we need to understand the geological situation here in Europe,” said Claus Beckmann, head of BASF’s energy and climate policy unit. “We are now in a situation where it is not even possible to start exploration, to start a pilot, and to get the facts and numbers in order to evaluate whether shale gas production is economically and environmentally feasible in Europe”.

“So we are only asking for exploration at the moment.”

The US shale gas boom has been a game-changer in the chemicals industry, bringing prices down for US factories and driving a new wave of investments there. BASF has recently invested more than one billion euro in the US to take advantage of cheaper gas and electricity prices.

“The US becomes more attractive for investment than Europe,” Beckmann told journalists in Brussels.

For sure, chemical companies look with envy at the US, but the scale of the shale revolution seems out of reach for Europe where the population density makes exploitation more difficult and where environmental concerns are higher.

“We believe that shale gas is a success story, a game-changer currently in the US, leading to a massive industrial renaissance in this country with enormous impact on employment,” said Peter Botschek of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).

“We would wish that we could realise a fraction of that in Europe,” he said.

Parliament votes against mandatory shale gas rules

Europeans are currently far from there, although some timid steps are being taken.

On 12 February, the European parliament’s environment committee voted against making Environmental Impact Assessments compulsory for new shale drills at the urging of states including Britain, Poland and Lithuania, in a bid to reduce ‘red tape’ for the industry. Member states would merely need to explain why these are not needed.

But the economic benefits of shale gas may not outweigh the risks of groundwater contamination, increased methane emissions and seismic activity, according to IDDRI.

“Even under the most optimistic scenarios for shale gas exploitation, the European Union would remain a significant importer of gas and oil and European Union prices would continue to depend on high international prices,” Thomas Spencer, the report’s author told a meeting in the European Parliament on 13 February.

Factors such as Russia’s index-linking of natural gas to oil prices would be more salient in determining European prices than shale gas expansion, Spencer added.

Current low gas prices of $4-$5 per mbtu are “ultimately unsustainable” and “short-term,” the paper says.

Industry reacts coolly

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) said they were still analysing the IDDRI study but noted that other studies had found that shale gas had brought about an ‘industrial renaissance’ in the US.

“As for Europe, even if the geological potential isn’t as promising as in the US, we believe shale gas could still bring some significant economic benefit,” Alessandro Torello a spokesman for OGP told EURACTIV.

A recent study shows that shale gas development in Europe has the potential to create as many as 1.1 million jobs by 2050, and add as much as 3.8 trillion euros to the EU economy by then. Shale gas production in the EU could also reduce energy prices compared with a no-shale gas scenario.”

As well as that paper, which was prepared for OGP by the Poyry consultancy, another study by the American Chemical Council concluded that shale gas expansion would generate new capital investment and production in the chemical industry and its supplier sectors, expand economic output and increase tax revenue.

That report did not consider the effects that such an expansion of shale gas would have on carbon emissions.

According to the IDDRI paper, “absent further policies, the US shale revolution will not lead to a significant, sustained decarbonisation of the US energy mix nor will it assure US energy security.”

“Coal fired generation has increased from 32.5% to 40% of the US power mix between mid 2012 and 2013 even with low natural gas prices,” Oliver Sartor, an IDDRI economist said. “Without additional policies, coal-fired generation will remain a large share of the US power mix for decades to come, despite shale gas.”

European industry sources are also becoming realistic about shale gas potential in Europe.

“We believe that shale gas is a success story, a game changer currently in the US, leading to a massive industrial renaissance in this country with enormous impact on employment. We would wish that we could realise a fraction of that in Europe,” he said.

Botschek said CEFIC was encouraging governments to "explore opportunities” for developing shale gas, adding that more should be done as well for bringing gas to the EU from other regions outside of 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 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. To detractors it is a hazardous and highly-polluting fossil fuel.

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, although analysts disagree about its long term potential.

  • 22 July 2014: Member states to be invited to inform Commission of measures they have taken under the recommendation’s remit
  • 22 July 2015: Commission to review implementation of recommendations and consider making them legally binding

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