After years of reluctance, European majors have finally succumbed to practicality in their need to develop energy resources, particularly oil and gas. Germany has announced — for the first time — its intention to allow the production of shale gas despite strong protests from environmental activists.
This dramatic turnaround came soon after the Ukrainian crisis, which created concerns about Russia’s continuing gas supplies, on which many European countries — particularly Germany — depend. Many of these countries were pinning too much hope on the possibility of natural gas in the Crimea and of possible shale gas in Ukraine before Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
By doing so, Western Europe is trying to repeat the US experience, as Washington has not only been able to meet its gas needs by producing shale gas, but also turned into a net gas exporter. This it has done by ignoring the possible environmental impact caused by the processes involved in shale gas production.
The US looks at this issue from the perspective of long-term security of energy supplies, as well as geopolitical and strategic imperatives. The shale oil and gas production has granted Washington a greater independence and helped reduce its reliance on foreign energy sources, including those coming in from the Middle East. This clearly explains why the US has changed its policy, as well as its willingness to sacrifice its allies in the region.
To what extent can Western Europe keep pace with the US to emerge as a dominant shale gas producer? This is an important question, since environmental activists in Europe form a significant force, and there is also strong opposition from within the ruling parties in some European countries, such as France.
This means that the German government’s revised approach to producing shale gas will not pass so easily and may cost it the majority in parliament in the next elections.
The first obstacle facing Germany is related to the need to amend its law against crushing rocks at a 33-metre depth to preserve the groundwater for drinking on which its cities depend.
It is well known that shale gas production requires drilling at this depth, using large amounts of water and chemicals for crushing operations and mixing these substances with the groundwater. This process has caused many diseases in the shale production areas in the US.
Some European societies are really caught in a bind — either they continue their dependence on Russian gas supplies and bear all the political consequences that come with it, or risk sacrificing the health of their citizens due to groundwater pollution by chemicals. It is going to be an emotive issue, and a line must be crossed by the governments whichever way they decide to go.
Is there an alternative? Environmental activists, supported by various communities, say yes. The alternative lies in two aspects — first reduce consumption of gas and oil, and second is to rely increasingly on renewable energy sources, particularly solar, and make use of climatic changes.
On the other side, there are companies that have new and upcoming production technology for this industry, which will help them generate huge profits. These companies are using their influence and financial strength to push toward the passage of laws that allow the production of shale gas.
Certainly, this is a multifaceted issue as it has deep economic, political, strategic and environmental dimensions that affect all members of the society and the future of
energy in these countries.
This will definitely spark a huge controversy in Germany and other European countries as they make a final decision on the production of shale gas. The European Commission and the European Parliament may interfere in this issue, which can only make the approach more complicated.
Except for the possibility of continuing with Russian gas supplies, all other approaches will have impact on other producing countries and even for the global energy market. The approach towards shale gas production may also increase pressure on gas prices, which have declined to their lowest levels after the US became a shale gas producer. Europe’s entry into this field will change the equation even further over the coming years.