Fracking has transformed the United States into the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and now Europe is weighing the pros and cons of the controversial technique as it seeks greater energy independence from its chief gas supplier, Russia.
The move comes amid the unprecedented crisis in relations between Russia and Ukraine that began when Moscow annexed Crimea earlier this year and then threw its support to pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists battling Kiev.
An estimated 16 percent of Russian gas destined for Europe flows through Ukraine, and since Russia meets around a third of Europe’s demand for oil, natural gas and coal, the threat of gas supply disruptions through Ukraine has set off alarm bells in Brussels. Germany gets 40 percent of its gas from Russia; Finland, Lithuania and Bulgaria are 100 percent dependent.
A draft “emergency action plan” released by the EU last week says the 28-member trading bloc could attempt to break Russia's lock on European gas imports by “developing domestic shale oil and gas reserves as well as investing into import routes that could bring Central Asian and Mediterranean gas to Europe,” Reuters reported.
The latter might mean increasing Europe’s liquid natural gas (LNG) capacity in order to tap supplies in Africa, the Middle East and North America, where a shale gas boom has changed the United States from a natural gas importer to an exporter within the past few years.
Europe’s concerns over gas supply instability are well-founded. Over the past decade, Russia has halted the flow of gas through Ukraine three times, directly affecting eastern and southern European countries most reliant on Gazprom, the giant Russian energy monopoly.
In August, the tables were turned when Ukraine threatened to block Russian oil and gas supplies to Europe as part of sanctions against Russia, which it blames for a separatist uprising in the east of the country. A ceasefire was announced on Sept. 5 but it is unclear what effects the 12-point peace plan will have on regional energy security.
So how likely is it that Europe will developing a fracking industry on par with the United States?
The continent certainly has ample supplies. According to this Bloomberg chart, the European Union has enough shale gas reserves to free the bloc from reliance on Russian energy for the nearly the next 30 years. Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria, France and Spain have the most shale gas; Sweden’s reserves alone could provide 250 years of domestic production.
The big question, of course, is whether any EU governments could gain enough popular support for extracting it.
Fracking, which uses a mix of water, sand and chemicals which isforced down a deep well in order to free shale gas and oil trapped between layers of rock, is controversial.
People living near fracking wells in the United States have reported methane leaking into the local water supplies. Environmental concerns over the amount of water and chemicals used -- highlighted in the documentary “Gasland” -- have also been cited. Some jurisdictions have banned the practice outright, including the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which recently declared it will pass legislation to prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
Among Europeans, there is little support for fracking. France and Bulgaria have banned it, while Germany and the Netherlands are among countries that have issued moratoriums. In a 2013 EU study canvassing popular opinions on fracking, over four-fifths of respondents from France and over half of those in Germany said unconventional fossil fuels -- which includes shale gas and oil -- should not be developed under any circumstances.
The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that some concerns over fracking are unique to Europe. The continent has a higher population density than the United States, which means that fracking would likely take place closer to population centers. America has large expanses of unpopulated land containing shale reserves – places like North Dakota and Texas -- where fracking companies can “learn from their mistakes.” Also, most Europeans do not own the mineral rights to their land, meaning that unlike Americans, they would not receive royalties.
If all of this isn’t enough to prevent Europeans from considering tapping their country’s shale gas reserves, there is another pressure bearing down on potential Euro-frackers, and it comes from a surprising source: Vladimir Putin.
Foreign Policy reported in June that the Russian president and his inner circle have been quietly backing European movements that demonize fracking, in order to maintain the Russian stranglehold on European gas imports. FP notes that strong environmental opposition to fracking is present in countries like Bulgaria and Ukraine, which are heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies. Given that, it’s perhaps not surprising that these same anti-fracking groups have taken aim at pipelines that would provide an alternative to Russian energy.
Ironically, it is the environmental concerns over fracking that could actually bolster an argument in favor of the practice in Europe, according to a recent article in Forbes. The author notes that not only could fracking make Europe less dependent on Russia; it could also reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. How is that possible? Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” writes that due to the shale gas boom in the U.S., the shift from coal to natural gas has reduced CO2 emissions by about 300 megatonnes -- more than the 275 MT reduced by solar and wind power.
Lomborg's point is not that Europe should abandon renewable energy sources in its quest for greater energy independence, but that the continent might consider being more open to the benefits fracking could bring, before outright rejecting it.