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Derek Jan Eppink: A Strategy For Exploiting European Shale Gas Resources

In its advocacy of shale gas, the Poles are supported by the UK, which has acted as a counterweight against French attempts to impose a blanket ban on shale gas development.

This week, the European Parliament will devote a committee meeting to the issue of shale gas development. It places shale gas, practically unheard of as an energy source five years ago, squarely in the spotlight.

No one denies that current fossil fuel reserves are finite. What has been denied, however, is that shale gas can play an important role in filling the coming gap between our energy needs and our resources.

Proponents of renewable energy see a future in which Europe’s grid is run exclusively on renewable sources like solar power, wind and water. Unfortunately, these renewable energy sources are not even nearly able to meet our current energy demands. For example, Germany’s 22,000 wind turbines produce just 27.2 gigawatts, or six percent of the country’s energy supply.

Similarly, even after extensive investment, solar power would still only meet 10 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2020. Short of cutting its energy consumption by at least 50 percent, there’s no way Europe’s largest member state could hope to meet its energy needs exclusively through renewable sources any time in the next half century.

It is clear then, that Europe needs an energy policy that isn’t limited to investment in renewables. Other sources must also be included. One of these sources must be nuclear energy. After all, nuclear power outclasses all of the other possible resources in terms of the amount of energy it can produce. Unfortunately, practical obstacles put limits on member states’ ability to expand rapidly the number of nuclear power plants on their territory. Other energy sources will therefore be required – sources like shale gas, of which Europe has significant reserves.

Enough gas for 60 years

A recent report by the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (Eucers) calculated that European shale gas resources are enough to cover another 60 years of European gas demand. In other words, when the European Parliament votes in favor of shale gas, it votes for a century of energy security.

Proponents of green solutions sometimes claim shale gas is dangerous. Phenomena varying from earthquakes and gas escaping from kitchen taps to water pollution are all attributed to shale gas drilling. If it is difficult to take such examples of Luddite superstition seriously, the same cannot be said for a potentially more fundamental objection to shale gas development, namely that the extraction process is causing acceleration in the build-up of greenhouse gases.

Until recently researchers claimed that during the process of hydraulically fracturing the earth layers in which the gas is trapped, quantities of methane previously held in the earth’s crust were likely to escape into the atmosphere. As a consequence, it was thought, shale gas accelerated global warming. Fortunately, this hypothesis turns out to be unfounded. A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University in the United States revealed that extraction of Marcellus shale gas did not result in the emission of more greenhouse gases than conventional gas. The researchers even stated that ‘on average, the emissions of Marcellus shale gas were about three percent lower than liquified natural gas.’

Independence from Russian gas

The current EU presidency, Poland, have taken a lead in the discussion about Europe’s future energy provision, expressing a strong belief in shale gas. For Poland, and indeed much of eastern Europe, shale gas development would mean not just economic growth and environmental progress (clean shale gas replacing dirty coal as the main energy source) but also independence from Russian conventional gas supplies.

In its advocacy of shale gas, the Poles are supported by the UK, which has acted as a counterweight against French attempts to impose a blanket ban on shale gas development. It is now up to the parliament and indeed the European Commission to reconcile these positions by developing an energy strategy that allows for the full development of European shale gas resources, while still taking environmental concerns seriously.

To do so would also show a sense of political maturity that until now has sometimes eluded the European institutions. By taking a firm stance on the issue of shale gas development, it could show that it is no longer prepared to be subject to the political whims of other global players.

In times when the demand for fossil fuels continues to grow, but the conventional resources are showing signs of exhaustion and alternative energy sources prove to be insufficient, shale gas surely must be part of any credible energy mix. Shale gas development will boost economic growth and enable the EU to regain global political clout, while also helping it to reach UN climate goals. It is, in short, a win-win solution.

The author is vice-president of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) in the European Parliament.

EUobserver, 5 October 2011