Will America’s shale gas revolution ever spread to Europe? According to Chevron, it already has. The company has been quietly buying up huge swaths of land across eastern Europe, an area it believes could be the next great frontier for shale gas exploration. It is convinced that the economic arguments for shale will ultimately trump the environmental concerns.
“It’s like Goldilocks,” says Ian MacDonald, vice-president of Chevron Europe, Eurasia and Middle East. “The shale has to be at the right depth, have the right organic content and be in the right geological window. That’s what we believe we’ve identified in eastern Europe.”
The shale boom has transformed the energy landscape of the US. Techniques such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and horizontal drilling have unlocked huge reserves once thought too difficult and expensive to exploit. Shale now contributes a third of America’s gas supplies, and a glut of the stuff sent US natural gas prices to 10-year lows this year.
Talk to the frackers, and it is only a matter of time before the shale revolution crosses the Atlantic. The size of the prize is huge: according to a study last year by the US Energy Information Administration, Europe has 639tn cu ft of technically recoverable shale gas resources – not far off America’s 862tn cu ft.
Yet there are plenty of sceptics prepared to bet that the shale boom will never cross the pond. Environmental opposition to fracking, which involves injecting huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to blast open the shale rock and release the gas trapped inside, is stronger in Europe than in the US. Fears that it could contaminate groundwater prompted France and Bulgaria to ban the practice. Romania and the Czech Republic could follow suit.
There are also widespread concerns that the process of exploiting shale releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Environmentalists also fret about the small earthquakes that shook parts of Lancashire in the UK last year in the vicinity of a shale gas drilling site. Oil companies insist fracking is safe when performed properly.
Another big obstacle is property rights. In the US, private individuals own the minerals underneath their land: in Europe, they are generally owned by the state. Persuading governments to let oilmen exploit their resources can be hard: US companies say it takes them a year to permit a well in Poland, compared with a few months in the US.
Beyond that, there is the argument that Europe is just too densely populated for intensive shale gas production. Unlike in the US, where shale plays tend to be far from human habitation, Europe’s can often be close to built-up areas.
There are also real doubts about the quality of the resource. In June, ExxonMobil said it was pulling out of Poland after tests failed to find gas in commercial quantities. And recently the Polish authorities radically downgraded their estimate of how much shale gas the country had .
But none of that has deterred Chevron. For years, it has been snapping up exploration acreage along a geological faultline that stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea. A crucial piece of its jigsaw fell into place in May when it won the right to negotiate a big shale gas contract in Ukraine. That left it with an almost continuous arc of concessions stretching from Bulgaria in the south-east to Poland in the north. The blocks in Romania alone cover 2,700sq km.
Chevron is pressing ahead despite strong opposition from locals. Shortly after it entered Bulgaria, the country was rocked by anti-fracking protests. In January, the Bulgarian government withdrew one of Chevron’s shale exploration permits.
Some companies would be discouraged by all the opposition. But Chevron takes a long-term view. It is convinced that the economic arguments for shale will ultimately trump the environmental concerns. Chief among the former is eastern Europe’s overwhelming desire to reduce its reliance on imports of Russian natural gas.
Already there are some signs of a thaw. In June, Bulgaria’s energy minister Delyan Dobrev said the country should focus on achieving “energy independence” through greater domestic production of gas.