Despite growing evidence from the US of a raft of negative environmental and social consequences of drilling for natural gas using the controversial hydraulic fracturing process, European energy companies are scrambling to secure licenses to roll out extraction projects this side of the Atlantic.
Hydraulic fracturing – also known as ‘fracking’ – is a process used in the vast majority of natural gas wells in the US, where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart rock formations and release gas. Experts have increasingly expressed concern that the chemicals used in fracking may pose a threat underground or when waste fluids are transported or spilled.
As in the US, shale gas is being increasingly seen as a way to sever links with a volatile provider, only in Europe's case it is not Middle Eastern oil sheikhs but oligarchs at Russian giant Gazprom.
In August, US energy corporation Halliburton carried out the first hydraulic fracturing of a well in Poland on behalf of the state-owned Polish Oil and Gas Company (PGNiG). Energy consultancy Wood MacKenzie estimates the country's reserves could stand at 1.4 trillion cubic meters. The high numbers have got US companies Exxon and Chevron scrambling to drill test wells alongside smaller companies such as Three Leg Resources from the Isle of Man.
With more than half of Poland's energy needs supplied by coal, shale gas is seen as a way drastically to cut national CO2 emissions in line with EU targets. According to Dr Andrzej Kassenberg of the Institute of Sustainable Development thinktank, replacing coal power plants with gas would cut emissions by as much as 75 million metric tonnes.
Yet Kassenberg remains cautious. ‘In the long term shale gas is still a fossil fuel, and in the short term it creates local problems related to nature conservation and water sources. There is a need to think of the worse-case scenario and prepare for it.’
Water supply in many regions of Poland is of low quality, a hang-over from the Communist era, and Kassenberg fears hydraulic fracturing will add unwanted stress. ‘In areas with water shortages, shale-gas exploration will create problems for supply, although it is difficult to give a definitive conclusion because it is still not known exactly where exploration will happen.’
Another issue is infrastructure, which is currently not sufficient to support the potential gas boom. Wells will be located in rural areas, to which water will need to be regularly trucked, and fracking fluid trucked back out. There is also uncertainty about how gas will be transported. Whatever the outcome, traffic will be greatly increased.
‘Construction of pipelines could cause problems, but so could the construction of roads,’ adds Kassenberg. ‘If roads are built to transport water and gas then it will open up pristine countryside to mass tourism, and could bring an additional negative impact to the environment.’
The Polish government, on the other hand, is largely ignoring stories of environmental impacts emanating from America. Shale gas has become an issue of national foreign policy and taken up with vigour by foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski.
In Britain, Cuadrilla Resources has completed a test well in the Bowland Shale formation between Pendle Hill and Blackpool, in Lancashire. The company is backed by Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm in which ex-BP boss Lord Browne is a partner and managing director.
‘I think it's very early days. It will take a lot of exploration and a lot of effort by small companies like us, and larger companies as well. But ultimately we are hopeful that we would find certain deposits here that would add to the net reserves of the UK,’ Caudrilla co-founder Chris Cornelius told Channel 4 News earlier this year.
Across the North Sea, Shell has drilled three exploratory wells in the southern Swedish region of Skaane, and in September Gripen Gas AS was awarded five exploration licences in the Cambro-Ordivian Basin. Caudrilla Resources has secured licences to test for gas in the Netherlands and Spain, while US company Devon is exploring Denmark's shale potential.
ExxonMobil has concessions for Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia in Germany, conducting five drillings, with two more test wells planned by the end of 2010, and owns 750,000 acres of leaseholdings in the Lower Saxony basin alone.
Despite the optimism and even if reserves were as vast as predicted, there is a chance that gas could stay in the ground because extraction is not commercially viable. Compared to the US, which has a plethora of oil and gasfield service firms, Europe is lacking in technical support. Take land rigs, for example: in the US there are approximately 1,500, but in Europe there are less then 100.
Geology is also a factor. According to Dr Quentin Fisher, a professor of petroleum geo-engineering at Leeds University, the lower permeability of shale in Europe could mean extraction is difficult compared to America.
‘I don’t think we currently know the volume of "shales" in Europe that are directly equivalent to those in the states,’ he said. ‘Much of the shale in Europe might have a much higher clay content than in the US, meaning that it could have a lower permeability and be more difficult to fracture hydraulically.’
Luke Starr is a researcher with Ecostorm
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