Shale gas no longer popular

France, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic have decided to suspend the exploitation of their shale gas fields for environmental reasons. Now that the EU is under pressure to adopt a similar position, Poland may be the last European country to continue seeking to develop this energy source.

Published on 10 May 2012 at 10:32

According to itswebsite, the Czech Ministry of the Environment is preparing to introduce a moratorium on drilling for shale gas. Authorities in the country argue that the moratorium, which will last between 18 months and two years, will enable them to fill certain gaps in current legislation on the protection of the environment as well as on mining and geological works.

Last month, the Czech government cancelled two existing gas exploration concessions, which had already been granted to the Australian company Hutton Energy. In defence of the decision, Czech Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa argued that local authorities did not have sufficient information on issues relating to the protection of drinking water sources, the environment and the local countryside.

German doubts

In Romania, Victor Ponta’s new left-wing government also announced that it wants to freeze shale gas exploration. In its economic programme, it notably stipulates “that a moratorium on the exploitation of shale gas should be introduced without delay, and be applied at least until European research on the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing has been completed”.

The move threatens to block projects undertaken by the US company Chevron, the holder of four exploration licenses for Romanian gas, which were scheduled to begin drilling this year. Last year, Chevron also won a public tender for shale gas exploration in Bulgaria, a project that has, however, already been compromised by a parliamentary vote [in January] which saw the ruling centre-right GERB party adopt a resolution endorsing a “permanent” ban on the exploration and exploitation of gas and oil extracted using fracturing — a process developed by the US gas industry which is currently the only cost effective technique for the production of shale gas.

Fracturing involves the injection of a high-pressure mixture of water and sand to free gas trapped in porous rocks. The solution used typically contains 1% of chemical agents, which are in general no different to those used in food products and cosmetics. Opponents of fracturing argue that these chemical products can contaminate water, an assertion that is contested by gas producers. Last year, in a move that was later followed by Bulgaria, France became the first country in the world to outlaw the use of this technology. Since then, the weekly Der Spiegel has reported that two German ministers — Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen and Finance Minister Philipp Rösler — have expressed doubts about fracturing.

A boon for Gazprom

All of this is worrying news for Poland, whose shale gas reserves have been estimated at 2,000 billion cubic metres [of which 346 to 768 cubic metres are extractable], and are among the most extensive in Europe. Shale gas is a potential resource could enable Poland to become independent from [Russian] natural gas supplied by Gazprom, while implementing a changeover from coal to gas, which has long been recommended by the EU.

According to MEP Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, “these recent decisions by EU member states are likely to reinforce pressure on the European Commission, which is currently drafting several documents on the exploitation of shale gas. The Commission will no longer be able to claim that opposition to the use of this resource is solely based on ideological arguments put forward by a number of isolated political parties”.

It will also have an impact on the debate over the future of shale gas in the EU, points out Bogusław Sonik, an MEP and member of the Civic Platform party led by Prime minister Donald Tusk, who is also the author of an Environment Committee report to the European Parliament, which argues that there is no need for further regulations to govern shale gas extraction — a conclusion that has yet to be endorsed by the parliament itself.

The ban on shale gas in certain EU countries has given Gazprom a better negotiating position. In Bulgaria, the moratorium was introduced just ahead of upcoming talks on the South Stream pipeline which supplies gas from Russia. And it is also worth noting that Gazprom is hoping to convince Romania to connect to this distribution link. As for the Czech moratorium, it will remain in force until the end of works on the undersea Nord Stream pipeline, which passes under the Baltic [between Russia and Germany], and is currently under construction in, of all places, the Czech Republic.

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