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What the Frack? Shale Gas Fact and Fiction

By Callie Le Renard, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


Though only in the earliest stages of exploratin and production in Europe, shale gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing is a very controversial topic.  For many Europeans, the fear of earthquakes, ground water contamination and environmental pollution outweigh the potential benefits that a domestic source of natural gas can provide.  The IEA weighed in on shale gas extraction just two weeks ago and brought yet another issue of concern that many Europeans will find troubling.  According to IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, “renewable energy may be the victim of cheap gas prices if governments do not stick to their renewable support schemes.”  In addition, while last year’s Commission Report on Unconventional Gas in Europe expressed the view that existing regulation is sufficient given the current stage of development of the shale gas industry, some MEPs are beginning to weigh in on the matter, making the case for additional regulation.  With all this bad press in Europe, it’s not surprising that two countries, France and Bulgaria, have banned fracking outright.

Not all the news about shale gas is bad, however.  Early results from a study conducted by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin have indicated that “many of the problems appear to be related to other aspects of drilling operations, such as poor casing or cement jobs, rather than to hydraulic fracturing, per se.”  And although the IEA has expressed its concern about gas edging out the development of more expensive renewables, it has also provided a set of “Golden Rules” designed to address community and environmental concerns about fracking. These include:

  1. Measuring water quality before and after fracking operations to determine whether there is any naturally occurring contamination

  2. Mandatory disclosure of the chemicals found in fracking fluid

  3. Robust geological surveys to ensure that the possibility of fracking-related earthquakes is limited

  4. Measures to reduce leaked emissions

  5. Consideration of depth limits to ensure public that fracking takes place far from the water tables

  6. Robust rules on well design and construction

Furthermore, a series of small earthquakes in Ohio, thought to be the result of hydraulic fracturing operations, were shown to be induced by another activity: the injection of wastewater into disposal wells.  Ohio has taken regulatory action to remedy this problem.  Even the EPA has questioned its own preliminary findings in a groundwater investigation in Pavilion WY, and is now working with the US Geological Survey to ensure that the science and sampling practices are sound before drawing conclusions about the impacts of fracking.

In the United States the industry is beginning to mature, and this is great news for everyone – energy companies and citizens alike – with a stake in the natural gas industry.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “Operators are professional and best practices are spreading. The industry understands that the environmentalists and political class don’t need much pretext to impose a moratorium” on fracking.  There are also efforts to educate the public about the realities of fracking, and organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund have been involved not only in educational efforts but EDF scientists have also been involved in other activities like a review of the Energy Institute study on fracking mentioned above.  So why is this great news for the EU?

The EU has an opportunity to benefit from American expertise in shale gas exploration and production before member states begin to develop their domestic shale gas industries in earnest.  This gives the EU and individual member states the opportunity to learn from American mistakes, initiate best practices and educate the public before the industry is fully developed.  Gostynska and Wisniewski at the Polish Institute for International Affairs, recommend inviting local lawmakers from areas in the US and Canada which have experienced shale gas drilling to discuss their experiences and lessons learned.  This could help to initiate a much needed frank discussion in Europe about the fact and fiction surrounding shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.  Furthermore, adopting the IEA’s “Golden Rules” will also show the citizens of European member states that both the EU and their national governments care about making sure that fracking is safe.

Finally, although the IEA has expressed concerns about cheap gas offsetting the use of renewable energy sources, this is unlikely to occur in Europe, the world leader in the development of renewable energy sources like wind power, solar power and biomass.  Europe has demonstrated time and time again that its commitment to renewable energy sources is strong enough to withstand the threat posed by cheap gas.  Natural gas need not offset measures to stop climate change.  To ensure this, however, the EU must continue its efforts and encourage other nations to maintain their support for the development of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency programs and other measures to fight climate change.


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