Europe needs 2,000 shale gas 'test wells'
by Agata Gosty?ska and Bartosz Wi?niewski
Europe needs many pilot projects to reasonably assess whether shale gas exploration can be handled in a safe manner - says Polish think-tank
For anyone keen on identifying the key fault lines in the pan-European debate about the promises and pitfalls of shale gas, the European Commission came up with a handy instrument. Back in December, the commission launched a public consultation process on the way forward with respect to the development of so-called unconventional fossil fuels. It invited all interested stakeholders to weigh in with their views. Individuals, non-governmental organisations, representatives of the oil and gas industry and the like have until March 23 to complete an online questionnaire on this topic.
The public consultations ought to be seen in a broader context of the activities that the commission set forth in its work programme for 2013. Under the priority of 'using Europe's resources to best effect', the commission intends to put in place a comprehensive assessment framework to enable safe and secure hydrocarbon extraction while at the same time examining the options to diversify energy supplies and improve competitiveness. The plan is quite ambitious in its entirety, since the commission wants to give full consideration to greenhouse gas emissions and management of climate and environmental risks while introducing greater "clarity and predictability for both market operators and citizens".
If implemented successfully, the programme could help the commission argue that it can efficiently moderate the European shale gas debate. For now, however, it is the questionnaire that attracts most of the attention and the initial reactions to it are less upbeat. That the questionnaire highlights shale-gas-related challenges is not surprising. After all, the final draft came from the desk of European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Poto?nik. Although, there are some aspects of the shale gas debate that the questionnaire it is either silent or insufficiently explicit about.
Perhaps crucially, it fails to properly address the positive effect that shale gas could have on the creation of a functioning, sufficiently liquid and competitively priced internal gas market. Indeed, additional indigenous natural gas supplies would be free from the arch-problem haunting the European import-dependent countries – in other words long-term, oil-pegged contracts. Furthermore although the commission was right to ask whether the development of unconventional hydrocarbons could help balance the electrical grid, it did so with an overly ambitious assumption that an average citizen is proficient in the nitty-gritty of electricity generation from so-called intermittent sources.
All in all, one could argue whether the questionnaire addresses the shale gas debate in a sufficiently balanced, neutral manner. These concerns aside, it would be a mistake to dismiss the commission's initiative. It deserves to be credited for further raising the profile of shale gas and engaging the European and international - the questionnaire welcomes contributions from Australia, Canada, Russia, or the United States - public on what has become a major point of contention both in Brussels and in the member states.
This is notable given that so far, the commission has been a fairly passive onlooker, speaking up only once called up to the board by the European Parliament and carefully weighting its judgments in the inter-institutional deliberations on shale gas. In effect, only scraps of information about the desired way forward have resurfaced. This picture gets even more blurred once you factor in the differences between key departments when it comes to shale gas – for example energy, environment and climate.
While some in the commission believe that the European Union should implement a wait-and-see approach by allowing the exploration and production to proceed under the current legal framework and introduce additional regulations only if need be, others are calling for an upfront overhaul of all applicable pieces of legislation; so as to pre-empt - in effect, rule out - the occurrence of any, even remotely possible, harmful effects of tapping into the shale gas deposits. But to expect that the public consultations would help bridge these differences would invite a serious disappointment.
Here is why. The questionnaire is a collection of the most commonly used arguments both for and against shale gas but nothing more. The consultations and the questionnaire itself bear the prodigal sin of the European shale gas debate, namely its polarisation in the political and economic dimensions - which in turn reflects the member states' diverging interests and perspectives in the area of energy policy and environmental considerations, including EU climate policy.
The debate has been heating up for the past few years - especially in the European Parliament - between those who tended to frame the shale gas issue in the context of increasing energy security, ensuring greater competitiveness or moving closer to decarbonisation goals and those who stressed the need for greater environmental oversight, advocated a more robust regulatory mechanism for the unconventional gas industry; and made sure that any positive effects of shale gas were accompanied by a set of caveats, reservations and warnings.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the pursuit of a European consensus on shale gas - which led through hours of public hearings, expert seminars, plenary debates and gave way to a number of reports and resolutions - has so far been rather unsuccessful. Quite the opposite, the rift seems to have been magnified by the decisions of some member states to halt shale gas projects or at least to give them a second thought, be it because of environmental considerations or political and economic jockeying. By the same token, by stepping into this explosive debate, the commission could not have hoped to miraculously resolve the deeply rooted disagreements about shale gas.
Specifically, the questionnaire was framed not as a tool to shape the debate, but merely to measure its pulse. What comes next? It is likely that upon examining the responses to the questionnaire, the commission will issue a report, and make it subject to a debate with stakeholders - including, but not limited to, the energy companies and interested NGOs - in the months to come. Whether this report would also be subject of deliberations of two law-making institutions —the European Council and the European Parliament is yet to be seen. The commission could also set forward some general directions for further activities vis-à-vis shale gas, which usually precedes a legislative motion.
At this stage, though, the commission's intentions are difficult to decipher. Tabling draft legislation would certainly be a tempting move. It would allow commission to end its term in a little more than one year from now on a high note. In fact, given the short time-span, the chances for hammering out a final piece of legislation are rather slim. Still, no matter what further activities vis-à-vis shale gas the commission envisages the bottom line is that whatever it does, it should avoid echoing the already existing prejudices. The challenge is therefore to move away from the beaten path, and to set the debate about unconventional hydrocarbons to a higher gear.
It will require a quite bold recognition that basing the European considerations on North American experience alone is inadequate and potentially counterproductive. Europe needs its own track record with shale gas before it can make informed, science-based decisions on the way forward. Neither critics nor advocates seem to question this. To that end, Europe needs pilot projects and shale gas test wells, so that we can reasonably assess whether the whole process can be handled in a safe manner in European circumstances. Judging by the scale of operations in the member countries so far, somewhere in the range of two thousand wells seems a reasonable number.
If not, only the screenwriters, producers and distributors of movies in the likes of 'Promised Land' stand to benefit from Europe's overheated and largely inconclusive debate on shale gas. Letting emotions and half-truths inform the debate about the future of EU's energy and climate policy does not seem particularly wise. So here is a practical, measurable goal that the commission could champion if it wants to become a meaningful voice in this debate. In order not to explicitly discourage exploration the commission should make clear that any legal measures would be adopted only once a specific number of test wells had been drilled - and the data on the environmental impact, geology and the like was delivered.
However, if the commission finds further legislative steps necessary at an earlier stage - it should present a specific exact time framework of its activities in order not to keep the business in the dark. There is a chance to introduce greater, and badly needed, predictability when it comes to prospects of European shale gas. Such a prudent, straightforward approach would be welcome and appreciated by all stakeholders - be it the administration of the member states, the industry or the citizens. Otherwise, we might just as well stick to the familiar arguments. But surely, Europe deserves better.
Agata Gostynska and Bartosz Wi?niewski are research fellows at the Polish Institute of International Affairs think-tank
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