Rhein on Energy and Climate

During the last five years the USA has witnessed a spectacular revival of its gas production, thanks to newly developed technologies allowing to extract gas by injecting water and chemicals under high pressure and crushing rocks that contain gas in several hundred or even thousand meter depths. Today shale gas amounts to almost one tenth of the US gas production; and in the future its share might mount to one third or more.

Can Europe engage in a similar exercise and invest in the exploration of its shale gas potential? Should governments or the EU subsidise drilling? Or should Europe keep its fingers off what would be most probably no more than sprinkle of gas?

Nobody knows how much shale gas is hidden under the European soil and the North Sea. The most recent (2007) estimate by the US National Gas Petroleum Council comes to the conclusion that European shale gas reserves might be in the order of more than 500 billion Terra cubic fee (Tcf) compared to 200 Tcf of conventional gas. That is not impressive.

Exploration has been going on in Hungary, Germany, Poland and UK during the past two years, without any public subsidies. European citizens do not seem more more enthusiastic about the drilling than about C02 storage near their homes.

There are four major arguments that militate for a cautious approach to shale gas.

  • Shale gas is nothing but natural gas produced at higher costs. The EU aims at reducing the consumption of coal and fossil fuels, gas included. Developing shale gas production would divert from the basic EU objective of reaching a zero-fossil energy economy by the middle of the century. Subsidies for shale gas exploration should in any event be ruled out.
  • The likelihood of discovering substantial volumes of shale gas in Europe is small. Unlike the USA, Europe has found only tiny reserves of natural gas. It is therefore not worth undertaking major efforts.
  • The process of large-scale crushing of rock by water and chemicals may produce undesirable by-effects on the ground water tables. No European country should therefore authorise the mining of shale gas without being sure that the ground water tables will not be polluted.
  • Unlike the USA, the EU is surrounded by major gas producing countries. These offer sufficient scope for diversification and security of supply.

The EU therefore does not really need to develop domestic gas sources.

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  1. A recent report by a unit of the US Department of Energy shows the opportunity for significant shale gas reserves in Poland (Source: http://www.naturalgasforeurope.com) For that country, shale gas hold the possibility of reducing dependence on Russian sources of gas. While shale/unconventional gas may not be the solution for all of Europe, it appears to have the promise for some nations.

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