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What would a shale gas revolution mean for Europe?

If the American shale gas boom is replicated in Europe, it will be at great cost to the environment and local communities – insists Brian Meaney

Many regions across Europe are getting hot and bothered about the latest craze for gas exploration – the extraction of natural gas from shale rock formations. High-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as ‘fracking’ involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure; fracturing the rock and releasing natural gas.

It was first developed in the United States and, for the time being, has dramatically transformed American energy supplies. Shale gas has given the American economy a boost – creating jobs, reducing consumer energy costs, stimulating economic growth and bolstering federal, state and local tax revenues.

The US has now moved ahead of Russia in oil and gas output, driven mainly by the shale gas boom. But this has been at the cost to the environment and local communities. The activity has seen methane being released into the atmosphere. Fracking chemicals and naturally occurring radioactive material has contaminated groundwater. In an impassioned plea, some 70 environmental groups wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama in 2011 – urging the American government to put a ‘halt’ to fracking which was ‘poisoning people’.

Yet European governments witnessed the economic rewards in the US and decided that they too must consider shale gas extrapolation to reduce the continent’s ever growing dependency on imports. But many citizens and communities are rightly fearful because of the environmental experiences they can see across the Atlantic. Some places have imposed a complete ban or introduced moratoriums on fracking. Regions in Spain France, and Ireland have banned fracking but these regional bans are coming unstuck.

Recently the Spanish government forbid regions from banning or forbidding fracking. “If a regional government prohibits fracking that would be in conflict with this national law,” Abel La Calle, an environmental lawyer and professor based in Almeria, Spain, declared. “Previously you could only imply that fracking was permissible. Now it’s expressly legitimised.” Areas in Ireland and the United Kingdom have also been told that they cannot prohibit fracking.

Against this backdrop, the Committee of the Regions – an assembly in Brussels which represents local and regional bodies across the European Union – agreed a series of measures it wanted to see introduced in EU legislation. The message from the regions of Europe was clear: if they were not allowed to prohibit activity in their local community, then as the planning and regulatory authorities they must at the very least have control to protect the environment and people in their regions. The measures were published through an opinion by the committee’s local and regional authorities perspective on shale ortight gas and oil – unconventional hydrocarbons.

Europe’s local and regional authorities want to have the competence to exclude sensitive areas. They have called for industry to provide independent and verifiable environmental conditions in areas where fracking is proposed including background seismology. They pointed out that they do not have the capacity in their water treatment systems to treat large volume of water containing complex chemicals that fracking gives rise to.

They do not have the competence to deal with the natural occurring radioactive material that this waste water may contain. Many local authorities may not be able to deal with the administrative load that the multi-stage development of shale gas creates in ensuring correct procedures legislation are followed in planning, environmental monitoring, enforcement actions.

Of particular importance to Europe’s local authorities are the financial bonds due to previous experience of extractive industries declaring bankruptcy and leaving them to deal with toxic settling ponds or gaping holes in the ground. In the US, abandoned wells pose a significant threat to groundwater and are a headache for local authorities. It is difficult to even be sure how many of the abandon wells exist.

To combat this, local and regional authorities will require the lodging of financial bond 1.5 times the cost of properly plugging and sealing each bore hole, rendering it inert. This cost must include the total of materials plus expertise in undertaking the work and assessing the final process. Local authorities also requested that financial bonds are lodged with them to ensure best practise during the drilling and fracturing stage. This bond must be significant enough to ensure rehabilitation in the event that the corporate entity no longer exists.

The passage of the opinion through the Committee of the Regions was not without its problems with vehement opposition from the assembly’s Polish and British Conservative Party members. We were satisfied with the final outcome when the majority of members back the report but still have concerns that fracking will impact on the development of renewable energy sources. Only two per cent of the world’s energy derives from renewables. This is down to economics, renewable energy costs more.

The development of shale gas will use up resources that we could better deploy in developing our renewable energy sources and developing a more efficient use of power. What should also be noted, raised by the committee, are the concerns expressed by the regions about the impact shale gas will have on climate change. While national governments are forcing regions to allow fracking, the impact of extracting this gas and using it could ultimately be folly.

For example, the normally conservative Paris-based International Energy Agency claimed that to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, only half of our existing proven reserves of oil and gas can be burnt by 2050 – even assuming dramatic cuts in global coal use and the deployment of carbon capture technologies.

Brian Meaney is a member of the European Union’s Committee of the Regions and a councillor from Ireland’s Clare County

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