MEPs divided on whether EU should regulate shale gas

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Lawmakers on the European Parliament's environment committee backed strong new regulation on shale gas and oil mining yesterday (19  September), just after their colleagues in the energy committee insisted on each country's right to decide for itself.

MEPs on the environment panel voted overwhelmingly for a resolution outlining the need for tougher regulation on shale gas and shale oil extraction activities.

Meanwhile, the resolution by the assembly's energy committee said each EU country should have the right to decide for itself on whether to exploit shale gas.

Both resolutions still need backing from the Parliament's plenary in October and would not result in binding legislation if passed.

But they do give an indication of the Parliament's inclination to regulate the industry after France announced over the weekend that it would not allow the controversial 'fracking' extraction method on its territory.

Ban on shale mining

The environment committee resolution supports a ban on shale mining in sensitive geological areas and would redirect funding from ‘fracking’ (see background) research towards investment in safety. It also called for environmental impact assessments and industry transparency, asking for full disclosure of contracts.

The resolution emphasised the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the responsibility of companies to take pre-emptive measures against the risks of shale mining as well as taking responsibility for accidents.

The paper also called for a review aimed at tackling holes in EU regulations, following doubts from the European Commission over the compatibility of fracking with EU water quality laws. The resolution bans the re-use of flow-back waste water – the name given to liquid that resurfaces after the fracking process – to comply with the EU’s Water Framework Directive.

Doubts have been expressed as to whether some of the substances used in the fracking process are compatible with EU chemicals rules.

Dutch MEP Bas Eichkout (Greens) welcomed these amendments but said he would have liked the report to have gone further and establish an EU-wide moratorium on shale mining. Eichkout told EURACTIV it was now “up to the Commission” to come forward with legislation.

Greens environment spokesperson Carl Schylter, a Swedish MEP, said the vote “cast serious doubt on the future of shale gas in the EU.”

A statement by Polish MEP Bogus?aw Sonik (EPP), responsible for drafting the environment committee resolution, said its “main message” was reconciling a “precautionary environmental approach” with an opportunity to prove the “commercial profitability” of shale gas and oil.

Energy and industry committee backs freedom to choose

Meanwhile, MEPs approved a separate resolution presented to the industry and energy committee on Tuesday (18 September), outlining the right of each EU country to decide for itself whether to exploit shale gas.

The resolution was adopted by a slim majority (32 in favour, 23 against and 1 abstention), outlining the committee's division on the issue.

Companies see shale gas as a strong investment opportunity and a solution to Europe’s energy dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.

Konrad  Szyma?ski, a Polish MEP (European Conservatives and Reformists) who drafted the resolution, said shale gas had "an enormous potential to provide economic benefits and reduce our dependence on Russian energy supplies."

The committee called on the EU to impose “robust regulatory regimes”, but only at the national level and for the "regulations to be proportionate to the risk."

Szyma?ski said he did not wish the EU to impose "unworkable" proposals such as those drafted by the environment committee, and "kill off what could become a major industry for Poland."

The report was condemned by the greens political group for favouring industrial interests over environmental concerns. Eickhout told EURACTIV that the resolution, which was passed with only a slim majority was “clearly influenced by a more industrial” side.

The Socialists and Democrats group criticised in a statement the conservatives in Parliament for bending to oil and gas industry pressure, calling on strict regulation and a full impact assessment of shale mining.

NGOs wade in

Friends of the Earth, an environment pressure group, threw its weight into the debate today, publishing a report making the case against shale gas.

The report described some of the chemicals used in the fracking process as “highly toxic”, including benzene and formaldehyde, which have been linked to certain cancers. Friends of the Earth said companies had refused to disclose some of the components of their fracking liquid.

Despite the few amendments made to the report voted through in Parliament, Antoine Simon, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE), expressed satisfaction at some of its ‘greener’ changes.

As well as the 'polluter pays' principle, Simon praised new wording which said that shale gas could only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions ‘depending on their lifecycle’.

The FOEE report said that on the contrary, shale gas could increase Europe's greenhouse gas emissions, a statement backed up by research by Cornell University, in the US, which claimed that emissions from shale gas can be 20-100% higher than coal over a 20-year period.

S&D environment spokesperson, British MEP Linda McAvan, said: “Before countries rush ahead with shale gas, we need to ensure that we have all the information about the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and also on the economic viability”, adding that “any member state which decides to go ahead with shale gas in the EU must prove that this is compatible with their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Carl Schylter, a Swedish MEP and Greens environment spokesperson, said in a statement: “The growing body of evidence about the environmental and health risks associated with shale gas extraction, notably through fracking, cannot be ignored”, outlining the need for caution over the “potentially disastrous impact of the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process”.

MEP Ivailo Kalfin, S&D spokesperson for the industry and energy committee, said: "The current industrial exploration method, fracking, is associated with multiple risks for the environment – particularly the contamination of water and soil – and human health, and we believe that the EU should provide more guarantees for the safety of the environment and EU citizens.

"If shale gas is to become a reliable and stable alternative source of energy, there should not be even the slightest doubt about the safety of the extraction process."

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.

  • October: Both resolutions submitted to vote in Parliament plenary session
  • 2013: possible EU legislation on shale gas

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