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Europe Needs 2,000 Shale Gas ‘Test Wells’

Agata Gostynska and Bartosz Winiewski, Public Service Europe

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.

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