Amid Ukraine crisis, will Europe frack?

The Ukraine crisis has sparked interest in natural gas production on a continent where many oppose new drilling. Hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – might help Europeans wean off Russian supplies, but the technology remains publicly unpopular and plays a small role in Europe’s vision of energy security.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters/File
A gas pressure gauge is pictured last month at a boosting compressor station near the village of Kovalivka, Ukraine. New EU and US sanctions on Russian put added pressure on Europe to diversify its energy supply sooner rather than later.

Europeans are on the market for new energy.

Relations with Russia, the Continent’s primary supplier of natural gas and oil, are at a low over a Ukraine crisis that shows little sign of easing. The tension has ratcheted up concern over energy security throughout the European Union, and officials are scrambling for new ways to heat their homes and power their factories, as EU-Russian relations continue to slide.

One option – and perhaps the most controversial – is in Europe’s own backyard. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) for shale gas has opened up a windfall of new energy supplies in the US, and some say it could work in Europe, too. But Europeans have largely opposed the controversial drilling technique on environmental grounds, and pushed instead for improved efficiency measures and more wind power, solar power, and other renewables.

There’s no guarantee shale gas extraction would work in Europe, either – at least not on the scale that it has in the US. Different geology, policies, and legal ownership of mineral rights have raised skepticism over the role fracking can play in European energy security.

One way or another, weakening ties with Moscow means Brussels is more inclined to consider shale gas – either its own or imports from more reliable shores. But it will not be easy to wean itself off of a fraught, decades-old dependency on Russian energy.

“Europe is getting ill at ease with Russia, but we can’t accept American answers - which are to dump [Russia] and not deal with them,” says Thierry Bros, an analyst with Societe Generale, a Paris-based multinational bank. “If we look at the issue with European eyes, we know we are stuck in bed with Russia. So the question is, what can [Europe] do to mitigate risk on a long-term basis?”

Threat of disruption

The EU and US further ratcheted up sanctions on Russia this week, in response to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in rebel-held Ukraine. They limit Russia's access to the Western technology that has allowed energy firms to produce oil and gas from shale and other difficult terrains. Moscow has strongly condemned the new sanctions, saying they will lead to higher European energy prices.

The new sanctions also complicate ongoing negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and the European Commission to resume the flow of gas from Russia to Ukraine. Moscow shut off supplies last month citing Ukraine's mounting gas debt. If supplies are not resumed, there is concern Ukraine will experience a shortage that could ripple across the rest of Europe. 

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"The escalation of sanctions can only mean that the risk of disruption has grown higher if there is no ground-breaking solution," Ruslan Stefanov, director of the economic program at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a public policy institute based in Sofia, Bulgaria, writes via e-mail. "I expect a cut-off in supplies sometime this winter if there has not been a solution by then." 

That puts added pressure on Europe to diversify its energy supply sooner rather than later. Heavy industry across Western Europe is clamoring for shale gas extraction, having seen the boom that has taken off on the other side of the Atlantic. In recent years, fracking combined with horizontal drilling has helped the US climb its way to the top of the list of world’s biggest gas producers. The cheap, plentiful gas has caused a level of energy self-sufficiency that has some EU leaders envious.   

Shale play

The European Commission released a draft statement on energy security in May, which supports the use of domestic shale gas to ease Europe’s gas demand. According to a document leaked to the Washington Post, EU officials have been pushing for access to the fruits of the US shale oil and gas boom throughout ongoing US-EU trade negotiations. 

But many Europeans remain staunchly opposed to fracking, which involves injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to release gas or oil from hydrocarbon-rich shale formations. Some fear groundwater will be contaminated by chemicals used in the fracking process, by waste generated by the drilling, or by the extracted methane.

Other concerns are more unique to Europe. More densely populated landscapes means many are uncomfortable with heavy industry operating close to population centers. Most Europeans do not own the mineral rights to their land, and therefore would not get direct royalties. Germany and France also don’t have relatively empty expanses like the brush land of Texas or the woodland hills of Pennsylvania where drillers can learn from their mistakes in the early stages of shale development.

According to a 2013 EU study looking at popular opinions of fracking in the EU, over four-fifths of respondents from France and over half of those in Germany –both countries with large shale gas reserves – believe unconventional fossil fuels shouldn’t be developed in the EU under any circumstances. French President Francois Hollande has said that fracking will remain banned in France as long as he is in office. Strict legislative framework for fracking proposed by two German ministers this month, if adopted, would mean that there “will be no fracking for economic purposes in Germany” until at least 2021. Nonetheless, the ministers opted to quietly announce the proposal on the day of Germany’s appearance in the FIFA World Cup final to mute the backlash they expected from not banning fracking outright. Shrewd politicians in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe realize that though dependence on Russian gas makes many uncomfortable, there isn’t much political hay to be made by supporting shale gas as an alternative.

“No one believes that we can solve [the energy security issue] quickly, with a few million liters of shale gas from Ohio,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in May. Neither those imports nor domestic shale, he continued, “offer much solution to the current crisis.”

Europe's 'all-of-the-above'

Even if Europe did pursue shale gas, the sheer quantity of gas that Russia supplies won’t easily be replaced. Even in scenarios where moderate or large-scale shale gas extraction takes place in the EU, the percent of European gas demand met by Russia will continue to increase over the next few decades, according to a 2013 study by Prory Management Consulting and Cambridge Econometrics. The study also challenges the notion that fracking will push down gas prices in Europe, as it has in the US.

It’s why Europe is considering a wide range of potential short-, medium-, and long-term alternatives as relations with Russia fray. Those include additional storage capacity to better cope with temporary shortages energy efficiency measures, and, for some EU member states, shale gas. European energy security is also getting a boost from existing renewable energy.  

In the long-term view beyond 2030, says Bros, the EU will have to “review its dependency on gas as a whole,” and look to new technologies that make wind and solar more attractive on a broader scale.  

David J. Unger contributed reporting from Boston.

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