Shale gas in Europe – potential gains and risks and its implications on foreign policy

IMG_5978Security, affordability and sustainability are the three pillars epitomizing the European Commission’s current political priority on energy. Taken into account the European strive for diversification of the Union’s energy supply, the US shale gas revolution has been subject to heated debates on whether this form of unconventional extraction could be a potential option for reaching Europe’s ambitious energy goals.

IMG_5950As illustrated by Rudy Swennen, Professor of Geology at KU Leuven, the so-called fracking process aims at extracting natural gas reserves from rock layers several thousand meters below the earth surface by injecting a mixture of water and sand supplemented with chemicals. According to the geologist this, however, is precisely where society’s critical opposition to fracking starts. Too often, misperceptions and widely spread fear dominate the debates resulting in a marginalized role of the data, such as the fact that chemicals make up only 0,49% of injected liquids and are already used in everyday products like cosmetics or detergents.

IMG_5963The distorted image of shale gas extraction being the cause for burning landscapes in the US is what Dennis Schmidt-Bordemann, Non-Resident Fellow at the Brandenburgisches Institut für Gesellschaft und Sicherheit, considered among the major obstacles for public support. Although the risks of groundwater pollution or adequate water recycling cannot be reduced to zero, developments in the US have proven that shale gas bears considerable advantages. The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recorded an estimated 200 000 new jobs as well as GDP growth effects of up to 1,5%. A collapse of gas prices, caused by oversupply due to shale gas resulted in an economic boom and in an increasing American independence from energy imports. As a consequence of supply chain dynamics, this had positive effects for other sectors as well. In the context of the EU’s sanctions still imposed against Russia, shale gas could not only pertinently contribute to a more effective diversification, but would enhance the credibility and the sustainable effect of economic embargos as an instrument of foreign policy.

IMG_5962“If you are bleeding, you don’t kill yourself, but you put a band-aid on your wound.” Xavier Maasarani, chair of the Shale Gas Advocacy Task Force at the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), drew an allegory addressing the potential hazard of methane leakage during the drilling process. If only a small percentage of methane dissolves into the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way, shale gas’ energy balance deteriorates significantly. However, through technological progress and a better self-regulation in the context of a more restrictive European legal framework, these risks are likely to be avoided.

Relying exclusively on renewable energy sources as the technology of the future will not match Europe’s demand today. In the attempt to explore alternative ways of keeping the EU’s lights lit, we should not rule out potential options per se. The pleading for not closing that door is therefore the panel’s appeal, well knowing that the road to success is still very long, complex and expensive. The question that remains: can the risks be managed?

Jonas Zenger