Shale Gas in Europe: Towards a More Pragmatic Debate
Marcus Pepperell is the spokesperson for Shale Gas Europe, a platform managed by FTI Consulting for all actors involved in the exploration and development of shale gas, tight gas and coalbed methane. It aims to promote a dialogue and provide first-hand, up-to-date information to citizens, policy-makers and the media on all the key issues surrounding the development of shale gas in Europe.
Prior to taking up his present position in January this year, Marcus spent 6 and a half years in the Middle East working in energy communications programmes and spent 10 years in London before that. In the context of developing Europe’s future energy resources, he says: ‘It’s important that key decision makers and those who influence these decision makers understand the broader energy context. We are starting to see a more pragmatic approach emerging but Europe’s shale gas debate has been surprisingly myopic when its future potential has yet to be fully understood. An informed dialogue is important as we’ll end up with a better understanding of the key issues facing the energy sector and the potential that shale gas could play in addressing some of the challenges Europe faces.’
Ahead of the 2nd EUROPEAN SHALE GAS AND OIL SUMMIT 2014, taking place in London, UK on 29-30 September, Marcus Pepperell offered Natural Gas Europe his insights on the public relations and communications aspects of European exploration and production of unconventional gas.
Please tell us a bit about the Shale Gas Europe platform and its aims and objectives.
We're predominantly a resource centre and a platform for what we believe is fact-based and constructive communication on shale gas-related development issues. Ultimately, it's about addressing the potential for responsibly developing Europe's onshore reserves of shale gas.
We've got a broad mix of communication channels: a website, a Twitter handle to the site, blogs; we have a newsroom for making media statements and we respond to policy and reports. We're active in having a public dialogue, providing professional commentary, and have attended and hosted events here in Brussels and around Europe.
Our objective is to ensure that Europe’s shale gas opportunity is not misunderstood. I think we are moving towards a more pragmatic debate – particularly in countries such as Poland and the UK, which are at the forefront of the European exploration process – but also in other countries such as Spain, Romania, Denmark where exploration is also underway and potentially The Netherlands which is currently undertaking a strategic environmental assessment of its shale gas opportunity.
The European Commission estimates that we could potentially have commercial production by 2015-17. As soon as this becomes a reality then the communication focus will shift to the regulatory and enforcement framework, rather than “do we or don't we have shale gas?”
Many are quick to point out the difficulties of developing shale in Europe, such as the high costs of production compared to North America, Europe's high population density, or the huge amounts of water necessary for hydraulic fracturing, and lately it's not being described as a game-changer for Europe. In that context, what do you think is the strongest argument for Europe to pursue unconventional resources?
The strongest argument is that we have the opportunity to develop an indigenous domestic energy source. Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on energy imports. More than half (53.4%) of the EU’s gross inland energy consumption in 2012 came from imported sources. In the same year the EU imported 65.6% of its gas consumption.
While “traditional” gas deposits may be dwindling, many countries in Europe have significant deposits of shale gas. The International Energy Administration has estimated that Europe could hold trillions of recoverable cubic metres of shale gas across several member states. It is as yet uncertain exactly where reserves are located, how large they are or whether they are commercially viable. This is why it is important that further exploration takes place.
Given your past experiences, how would you characterize Europe's caution towards pursuing unconventional gas?
Europe has one of the tightest regulatory frameworks to ensure that everything is developed in an environmentally sustainable manner. It has also made commitments to reducing its CO2 emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and ensuring 27% of our future energy derives from renewables. Therefore any new source of energy must be tied into the EU’s aims for a greener future.
But that still leaves us with the need to source the remaining 73% of our energy which has come from other energy sources such as nuclear or other, more carbon intensive fossil fuels such as oil and coal. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that shale gas has a role to play in replacing more intensive fossil fuels as Europe moves towards a low carbon future. This has been endorsed by the UK Climate Change Committee too.
The EU understands that we need to keep the lights on and to ensure that there is a reliable and secure energy mix developed within an environmentally sustainable framework. It also understands that shale gas can be a part of this energy equation.
Do you think Europe is navel gazing?
I don't think it is navel gazing. It is following a cautious approach to what it sees are some genuine challenges. But policymakers need to take a stronger lead. How are we going to ensure and secure our energy supply at an affordable price in the years to come? The debate is an important one – we need to have that debate - but there have been elements that have been sensationalized, particularly towards shale, and the role that it could have in the future energy mix.
We have had a relatively emotional debate about shale gas before we've really understood the opportunity in terms of the reserves and before we’ve allowed the academic community the opportunity to advise key decision makers on the best approach to best serve Europe’s interests, balancing the environmental with the economic.
Europe does have an energy paradox. We are increasingly our share of renewable energy at a time that we are using and importing ever increasing amounts of coal and gas to meet our energy requirements.
But I think we're moving on from that. Ukraine has focused minds and the debate is maturing. It’s a question of what energy we need and want and how we can balance this within an effective environmental framework.
Observed from afar, fracking still seems to be a very dirty word in the UK. How would you characterize the reputation of the technology there and in the rest of Europe?
We have moved on from where we were last year.
There has been a lot of misunderstanding fuelled by a variety of conflicting reports and sensationalist media reporting taken out of context. Consequently fracking itself, as a term, is misunderstood. The process of shale extraction is misunderstood.
But the debate has shifted. Some of the polls that are coming out now are reflective of a broader awareness. Last week UKOOG published a survey that shows that 57% of Britons support natural gas from shale. The last University of Nottingham report showed that just under 50% of Britons are supportive of shale, so the picture is far from negative.
What do you consider the best way to communicate this, to assuage people's fears? Should it be done by industry, or does there need to be an “honest broker”?
As a potential new industry, people are naturally concerned about shale gas and they want to know more.
There's a generic need to have a debate about our energy mix and policy and how we're actually going to meet expectations in terms of demand and supply whilst ensuring we safeguard and protect our environment.
Everyone has a responsibility to ensure this debate is a valid and constructive one but ultimately it is policymakers and regulators who must address and manage public concerns and for the energy industry to ensure the use of industry good practice.
Given the experiences in Poland with the pullout of numerous shale gas explorers, how do you think the perception that things didn't turn out as planned has influenced the debate in broader Europe?
Shale gas is a potential new source of energy. It’s a long term investment and the energy industry understands this. Many still think Poland will be the first country in Europe to produce commercial shale gas. In the last month or so that we've seen legislative and tax issues addressed by the Polish government, specifically responding to some of the issues raised by investors and operators, so I think there's renewed interest in the opportunity that the country have – particularly in reducing its significant dependence on coal.
Again, it comes back to the exploration issue. We need more exploration to be able to understand the opportunity. Regardless of the legislative framework we've still got the geological challenge to determine the amount of reserves that exist within that rock.
Drew Leifheit is Natural Gas Europe's new media specialist.