France Challenges EU on Controversial Oil Plan

The “gold rush of the 21st century” for shale gas extraction raises environmental concerns that raise barriers to commercialisation

Fracing is the abbreviation for Hydraulic Fracture Simulation, a process whereby fluid and sand particles (suspended in the fluid), are pumped into the well causing the geological formation to crack open (fracture) which creates a better conduit for the reservoir fluids to flow into the well-bore | Photo: Courtesy of Tree

It was one of those rare moments in politics. Ecological concerns were pitted against big business and for once at least the environment won. Although French oil giant Total was reportedly among the many companies looking to exploit French shale gas reserves via a controversial drilling technique called fracking, on the 11th of May French MPs, taking notice of large regional protests against the drilling, voted for a moratorium on fracking until its impact on the environment and human health have been better explored.

The vote has hailed as an important battle against an industry that involves injecting dangerous chemicals into the ground, which, critics say, could contaminate ground water with cancer-causing substances. But with so much money behind fracking, it promises to be a long war. Some EU members see the technology as preferable to its existing energy mix. Poland, for example, highly criticized for its dependence on coal production and gas imports. plans to make promoting fracking a priority of its six-month EU presidency that began July 1.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to give its full name, has been called “the gold rush of the 21st century.” It involves injecting high pressure fluid into rock formations hundreds of metres below the surface to break up the shale rocks and thereby release gas that just a few decades ago was considered beyond human reach. The gas bubbles out of the rocks and is brought to the surface via further plug-holes that engineers drill into the earth.

The process is controversial because, as well as water and sand, a cocktail of chemicals is pumped into the earth to help the fracturing process and researchers say these include toxic substances such as naphthalene, a poison of the blood, as well as benzene, formaldehyde and lead. Dr. Paul Johnson from the Greenpeace Research Laboratory in Exeter says the chemicals are needed to keep the fractured rock pieces apart so that the gas can escape.

Environmentalists fear these can seep into the water table and poison water supplies with carcinogenic pollutants. An accident at a drilling site in Pennsylvania in 2010 spewed 35,000 gallons of fracking fluids into the air, spreading the chemical mix onto a local forest.

Other dangerous substances formerly locked within the shale rock, including radionuclides such as radium, are set free when the rocks are fractured and they can seep up with the gas to the surface. When the drilling waste water is dumped this could enter the food chain. The New York Times published a leaked study commissioned by the American Petroleum Industry that suggested that radium in dumped off the Louisiana coast posed “significant risks” of cancer for people who ate fish from the Gulf of Mexico.

But the most spectacular leaks of pollution in the USA have seen methane seeping into the water supply and causing tap water to catch fire.

Yet despite these worries the US has welcomes fracking to such an extent that even the most ambitious American environmental activists have reduced their ambitions from stopping the industry to persuading the government to enforce better regulation. Washington, which is desperate to achieve energy security but apparently still wary of developing renewables, has seen the fracking as a fast road for energy security. Supporters quoted in the Daily Telegraph boasted that natural gas deposits that could be set free would be the equivalent to “two Saudi Arabias-worth of oil.”

And as well as energy, the industry has brought jobs to recession hit America, 44,000 jobs in the state Pennsylvania in 2009 alone according to Bloomberg, as well as 400 million dollars in tax revenue. President Barack Obama, who came to power with the greenest credentials of any successful candidate for the White House, is expected to ignore scientific advice to regulate the industry for fear of irking the energy companies before next year’s election.

According the Euronews, the European Commission is still wary that “The possible impact of future European unconventional gas production on the EU’s energy mix is difficult to assess.” It would be most useful to examine the US experience, but that is not as easy as you might think. Legal loopholes, introduced during the Bush era, which prevent environmental agencies from getting access to the data they need to properly examine the process. In 2005, at the urging of Vice President Cheney, fracking fluids were exempted from the Clean Water Act meaning make-up of the soapy fluids pumped into the earth is as carefully guarded as the recipe for soft drinks.

The argument used was that if companies have to disclose what soapy fluids they were using to get at the gas, other companies might “steal” the profitable formula. Cheney’s former employer Halliburton, you’ll be surprised to hear, are major players in the fracking business so the legal clause is popularly known as “the Halliburton loop-hole”.

A study published this week by scientists at Duke University in North Carolina found that methane levels in water supplies close to drilling sites were on average 17 times higher than they were in water supplies further away from those sites. Environmentalists say there have been over 1,000 cases of ground water contamination associated with fracking across six states in the US.

Despite all of this and the French decision, Europe had seemed greatly seduced by fracking. The reservoirs of shale gas on this continent are neither as expansive nor as easily accessible as those in the USA, but still a much quoted report by the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security last week suggested Europe could “cover its energy needs for the next 60 years if it was able to develop its unconventional gas resources.” According to EuroNews, Europe is thought to have somewhere in the region of 17 trillion cubic metres of recoverable underground shale gas.

The corridors of power in Brussels are said to be teaming with persistent pro-fracking lobbyists. The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey says they have been “besieging government officials” and with the post-Fukushima public distrust of nuclear power. Governments are desperate for new options. The gas industry has much more financial and lobbying clout than the renewables industry and it’s thought that climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard’s recent plea that EU governments should commit to new targets for renewables was motivated by a desperate recognition that Europe was swaying in favour towards investment in gas. The UK started limited programme of hydraulic fracturing back in March.

Multinational companies including Shell, GDF Suez and Statoil are promoting gas as an alternative “green” fuel, in the words of Shell’s outgoing UK Chairman James Smith it could offer a “breathing space” against climate change because, in the words of Roberto Brandt from the International Gas Union, gas is “45-50% cleaner than coal and its derivatives.”

But Greenpeace researcher Dr. Paul Johnson says the green credentials of fracking are dubious because vast amounts of energy are used in the extraction process and a significant quantity of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, often escapes during the process. According to a study led by Robert Howarth of Cornell University in Ithaca, US, in terms of its carbon footprint, fracking could in fact be “worse than coal”.

The fracking lobbyists will see the French decision as a set-back but perhaps only a minor one. The French ban still has to pass through the Senate for approval and doesn’t revoke researching licenses that the French government has already granted. And with Poland placing the issue high on the agenda for its EU presidency, environmentalists can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

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