A View from the Green Side: Shale Gas - Unconventional and Unwanted
Shale gas and the techniques used to extract it present “a high risk for people and the environment”. This is how the European Commission introduced its first assessment of shale gas operations on the 7th September. End of story?
You’d think so, but in the following weeks, two more studies, and votes in the European Parliament, have left the European debate with a range of incompatible messaging around this unconventional fossil fuel. However, there is one clear thread throughout – shale gas is not the promised bridge to a low-carbon future, and unleashing it in Europe brings undeniably high environmental and health risks.
The European Commission’s first report, from DG Environment, recognised the risks of ground and surface water contamination, air pollution, biodiversity loss, noise and traffic impacts, land grabs and water consumption. Also, importantly, it confirms that current EU legislation is far from adequate to cover shale gas operations. This assessment was mirrored in a report commissioned by the North-Rhine Westfalia government – where a moratorium on shale gas developments exists.
This was followed by a Commission study from DG Climate that shows shale gas is not the low-carbon clean energy source it was previously believed to be. This was confirmed in an Exxon-financed study which found that “the global-warming footprint of shale gas extracted at a depth of 1,000 meters is 30% larger, and is twice as large for gas obtained 2,500 meters down, compared to the natural gas currently used in Germany”.
The European Union's scientific and technical research laboratory, JRC, concluded in its study that "Shale gas production will not make Europe self-sufficient in natural gas" – undermining energy security arguments.
Yet European parliamentarians only partly heed these warnings: the parliamentary committee working on environmental issues recognised the main risks inherent in shale gas activities and the main gaps in the current EU legislation. However, the parliamentary committee working on energy and industry promoted shale gas as a necessary bridge to achieving energy security and Europe’s climate objectives.
Perhaps this uncertainty in the European halls of power is normal – but the debate in Europe needs to err on the side of caution, reflect the warning signs in numerous studies, and more importantly reflect the impacts on the ground. 'Fracking', the process used to extract shale gas, is an unambiguously high-risk activity that threatens human health and the wider environment. Local opposition to the threat of shale gas continues across Europe, with bans on fracking already in place in France and Bulgaria, and moratoria in regions of Germany and Czech Republic, and in the Netherlands.
The International Energy Agency’s Chief Economist, Fatih Birol, has warned that this ‘golden age of gas’ could have a major impact on investments in renewables and seriously jeopardise Europe’s climate ambitions. He even went further, adding that any move away from investments in renewable energy would increase the risk of an increase in global temperatures by 6 degree Celsius this century, describing the current trend as "catastrophic".
This is a clear message that on top of the local impacts, there is a danger that shale gas will lock Europe into continued fossil fuel dependency at the expense of renewable energy and energy savings projects. This will undermine Europe’s vision for a more sustainable, low-carbon energy future. So no matter how ambiguous or incompatible the messaging around shale gas might be, there’s one very clear course of action: Europe should permanently close its doors to this unconventional and unwanted fossil fuel.
By Antoine Simon, shale gas campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. For more on Friends of the Earth's position on unconventionals, click HERE