Shale gas not the solution to low-carbon future

21 May 2012

Shale gas, shale oil and coal bed methane have arrived in Europe under the banner of energy security, and more worryingly, environmental protection. However, the reality is that shale gas and the process of hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) represent a dangerous experiment on both the health of European citizens and the environment, while the economic viability is debateable.

Last month, following the presentation of MEP Boguslaw Sonik’s draft report on shale gas for the parliamentary committee working on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, our coalition of environmental and health NGOs released a joint position statement warning the European Parliament of the dangers of fracking. Sonik’s report either omitted or minimised the risks and negative impacts of fracking, and replaced them with overly optimistic industry assessments interests. This characterises how shale gas is being promoted at the European level: obvious loopholes in current regulatory frameworks are glossed over, and the true environmental and economic costs of shale gas, and the financial viability of the industry, are misrepresented.

The European debate however, is out of touch with citizens’ concerns about clean water, air quality, etc. This unconventional fossil fuel has not gone unnoticed across Europe. Citizens’ groups have sprung up around Europe that question the lack of consent or involvement in decision-making granted to local communities affected by shale gas exploration, and question outright the safety of the process. These grassroots groups have recognised that shale gas poses a serious threat to both local communities and the environment and are intent on opposing it. Bans on fracking are already in place in France and Bulgaria, moratoria in regions of Germany and Switzerland, and in the Netherlands, with Romania and the Czech Republic considering the same.

It’s time for decision makers to start listening. The rush for shale gas began without proper political debate on the costs and benefits of this energy source. To date, there has been no independent, comprehensive or detailed analysis of the EU regulatory framework that applies to both exploration and exploitation. We know little about how Europe’s Water Framework Directive might cover the specifics of fracking and its impact on water resources. Vast amounts of water are required to extract shale gas, creating significant social and environmental pressures at local and regional levels.

Water is definitely a key issue and there has been no assessment of the capacity of water treatment plants in affected regions to handle flow back waste water, nor has there been any assessment of monitoring and enforcement capacities of Member State authorities across all the different impact areas.

There has been no scientific study of the risks of fracking-related air or soil pollution or water contamination, and the long-term health impacts of large-scale shale gas extraction remains unknown. Loopholes in the European chemicals legislation (REACH) allow companies to remain secretive about chemicals used during fracking, making it impossible to assess the environmental and health risks. These toxic chemicals used whilst fracking, along with the hazardous and radioactive materials naturally present underground, smog particulates and other pollutants released during the process can contaminate surface and groundwater, and pollute the air and soil – seriously threatening human health.

There is still no consistent process in Europe that guarantees the free and fully-informed consent of local communities in decision-making – most communities only find out about shale gas developments when the drilling rigs arrive.

All these problems and unknowns amount to a serious question mark that hangs over shale gas and its position within Europe’s energy future. When European legislation catches up with the reality of shale gas exploitation and extraction, and industry covers all the costs involved, there is no way that shale will be a financially attractive option. The financial viability of shale gas is questioned even by those within the industry: Peter Voser, CEO for Royal Dutch Shell, concludes that the development of shale gas in Europe and worldwide “will be limited as a result of regulation, legislation, high population density and the challenge of obtaining permits” and could face major cost overrun in order to comply with environmental regulations.

The European Union has made a clear commitment to move to a low-carbon economy, agreeing to almost full decarbonisation of its power sector by 2050. Unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas sideline Europe’s vision for a more sustainable, low-carbon energy system. There is no scientific agreement that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas will be significantly lower compared to other conventional fossil fuels, even the most carbon-intensive ones like coal. The combustion stage of natural gas may be cleaner than that of coal, but a life-cycle analysis of shale gas processes tells a different story and does not warrant the “transition fuel” label.  Such fuel could instead lock the EU into a continued dependency on fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy, energy savings and significant reductions in emissions – the only genuine path towards an environmentally sustainable and healthy future.

We want European member states to suspend ongoing activities, to abrogate permits, and to place bans on any new projects, whether exploration or exploitation. Europe faces some serious challenges in the next decade, and this shouldn’t be one of them. Europe must embrace a low-carbon future, based on renewable energy and improved energy savings.


Antoine Simon, Friends of the Earth Europe

Geert de Cock, Food and Water Europe

Lisette Van Vliet, Health and Environment Alliance