Public controversies over shale gas in Europe – Germany

We know quite a lot about US public attitudes towards shale gas production, mainly from the heavily publicized last year movie Gasland. However, we know much less about the developments in Germany, our neighbour country. Recently, Polish media announced that the German government imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, but we are still unaware of the processes behind that decision. In this context, I would like to draw readers' attention to the application of Technology Assessment (TA) procedures in Germany to the assessment of shale gas production impacts on the environment, public health, the economy, the society and politics.

Like Poles, the Germans are looking for ways to enhance their energy security and attempt to remodel the domestic energy market. These efforts include Energiewende (energy breakthrough/transformation) which involves complete departure from nuclear power generation following the Fukushima disaster of 2011. According to Energiewende all nuclear reactors are to be decommissioned by 2012 and replaced mainly with renewable energy (accounting for approx. 22% of the total electricity production). In that context, the planned role of shale gas is still unclear.

Question arises whether Germany will ever produce the shale gas and if yes, then is it going to be a transitional fuel or, alternatively, a permanent replacement for other fuels. Like Poland, Germany heavily relies on gas deliveries from Russia which is the largest and the most important supplier of energy commodities to Germany. Russia accounts for 38% of natural gas, 35% of crude oil and 25% of hard coal consumption in Germany. So far, Russia has been a credible and reliable supplier to Germany, but recent developments in Ukraine raise a number of concerns. This, in turn, may pave the way to indigenous shale gas production.

Since the 1970's, the Germans have developed and established institutional technology risk assessment solutions. Such institutions as Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse (Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis – ITAS) or Büro für Technikfolgenabschätzung (Technology Assessment Bureau) of the Bundestag have existed for years. Public debates on the potential favourable and unfavourable effects of shale gas production and attempts to assess hydraulic fracturing risks are held by specialized risk and technology assessment institutes. Reports have been prepared for both federal/ regional governments and independent think tanks. They reflect the efforts aiming at the determination and mitigation of concerns over the application of the novel shale gas exploration and production technologies.

How much gas in the German shales?

Germany imports approximately 70% of the energy commodities. These are primarily coal, crude oil, natural gas and uranium for nuclear power generation (about 82%, 97%, 88% and 100% of the domestic consumption, respectively). Indigenous production, including renewable sources of energy, satisfy as little as 25% of Germany's energy demand. Therefore, Germany heavily relies on foreign deliveries. The shale gas might help to resolve that problem.

Germany's recoverable shale gas resources are presently estimated at approx. 700-2 268 Bcm, i.e. two – to fourfold more than existing recoverable conventional gas resources. So far, only one exploratory shale gas well was drilled and hydraulically fractured in Germany (in Lower Saxony in 2008). Exxon Mobil Company that drilled the well has publicly disclosed the chemical composition of the fluid used in three hydraulic fracturing operations.

Hydraulic fracturing technology is not quite a novelty in Germany. A similar method has been applied since the 1950's for tight gas production. Since then, more than 300 fracturing procedures have been effected at depths below 5 000 m. According to a report by Hannover Land's Mining, Energy and Geology Office (Landesamt für Bergbau, Energie und Geologie) of 2012, no environmental damage from these operations was reported. However, as Ms. Alexandra Vetter of German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) put it, hydraulic fracturing of shale rocks is a novelty to the German public, insofar as higher volumes of chemically different fluids are used. As a novelty that is still to be tested in practice, shale gas fracturing raises serious concerns over environmental impact and the effect on human health.

German Anti-Fracking movement is stronger than Polish

The German Anti-fracking movement is particularly strong in North Rhineland-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, i.e. in the most prospective shale gas regions. Besides local groups and environmental organizations, Bundesverband Bürgerinitiativen Umweltschutz e.V. (Federal Association of Environmental Action Groups) opposes hydraulic fracturing. The opponents use two communication platforms: No Moor Fracking (which can be understood also as “no more fracking”) and  GegenGasbohren (Against the drilling). Moreover, German breweries and the Protestant Church say no to hydraulic fracturing.

No Moor Fracking is an informal umbrella association of those protesting against hydraulic fracturing. Without a formal structure, it is intended to serve as a source of information facilitating various forms of neighbourhood self-organization. The Gasland  movie is an important point of reference for No Moor Fracking. The website of the organization lists a number of risks that are associated with unconventional gas production technology: hardly predictable risks of drinking water, source water and soil  pollution, risks of earthquakes and seismic shocks, risks associated with occupation of huge land areas and worsened quality of living in the regions. Organization leaders posted the following requests at the website: to ban hydraulic fracturing, to ban unconventional gas production, to ban gas production in protected areas, in the proximity of parks and intakes of potable or mineral water. According to them, priority should be given to the development of renewable sources of energy, rather than to the development of the sector based on energy mineables.

Gegen Gasbohren collects information about those local communities that are affected by gas exploration, including unconventional gas projects. The website promotes a debate on the risks involved, in particular on potential contamination of water and soil with benzole. The initiative aims at imposing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until the risks are fully assessed.

There are no meaningful differences between German and Polish anti-fracking movements in terms of concerns they raise. Nonetheless, the German movement is better organized and its postulates are much more far-reaching. Polish opposition centres are mostly local and seldom request a ban on fracturing across Poland. Civic organizations are a major source of the debate on the risks in the two countries.

No for the shales in the coalition agreement

A panel of experts held in December of 2012 triggered a debate on legislative regulation of shale gas production in Germany. In February 2013, the government of Angela Merkel presented a draft regulation that permitted hydraulic fracturing using the same technique as in the USA, provided that such operations are performed out of aquifer and source water protection areas that cover more than 10% of the German territory. The Bill draft required that an environmental impact study must be made before the beginning of exploration, prior to the beginning of shale oil and gas or geothermal energy, if hydraulic fracturing has been applied. The companies would be required to inform about the fate of flowback water.

The bill was drafted by the Ministry of the Economy, then led by Merkel's coalition partner, i.e. by the business-minded Liberal Party. These proposals were primarily underpinned by the concerns over increasing costs of energy to the German industry. This, in turn, makes it difficult to compete with the US industry, as US energy price is 25% lower than in Germany.

However, the bill encountered objections of the opposition, non-government organizations, some mass media and a majority of the public opinion. As part of  coalition agreement of the new cabinet, an all-Germany moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was announced in the fall of 2013. In accordance with the agreement, unconventional hydrocarbons will not be extracted under the governance of the existing coalition and the moratorium will last until all potential risks of negative effects on the environment and public health are ruled out or alternative shale gas production techniques that do not require injection of any chemicals into the boreholes are available.

Nonetheless, in early July 2014 Minister of the Environment Barbara Hendricks and Minister for the Economy and Energy Sigmar Gabriel published new guidelines for conditional hydraulic fracturing permits. Fracturing is to be permitted for scientific research purposes and if aquifers are not at risk. The ban on hydraulic fracturing of rocks occurring at depths up to 3 000 metres, in the proximity of protected waters, sources of curative water, river dams and lakes, was upheld. The ban may also be extended on potable water supply areas.


About the risk on the federal and business level

Germany made significant research efforts to dispel the doubts over the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and public health. Several reports were published by the federal government, regional governments, the industry and independent research institutes.

In November of 2011, a public hearing on shale gas extraction was held before the Bundestag's Environmental Committee. Hydraulic fracturing was a subject of the hearing. A majority of experts invited to the hearing have warned that it is impossible to assess the inherent risks. Key areas of concern are: the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the quality of the waters, earthquake risk, potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions, huge water consumption for fracturing purposes and the risks associated with disposal of flowback water.

Also shale gas exploration companies have launched in Germany a comprehensive structured debate on the potential effects (both favourable and undesired side effects) of shale gas production. Early in 2011 ExxonMobil Production Deutschland GmbH (EMPG) launched a dialogue on potential risks and environmental effects of unconventional gas production, in response to public opposition to exploratory operations in Northeast Germany. The project's scale was exceptional: in addition to a neutral committee of experts having no ties to the oil and gas sector, a civic panel was established from the representatives of approx. 50 stakeholder groups – public organizations and institutions – who have participated in the debates and monitored expert's performance. A final report with conclusions was presented in Osnabrück in April of 2012.

As a first step of risk assessment, questions on shale gas were collected from German citizens, local governments and water utilities. Existing knowledge and available subject-matter publications were reviewed. A study tour to the USA was organized to observe the process of shale gas production in US localities and interview the residents and local officials. Eight experts from leading German research institutes were invited to the dialogue to deal with a wide array of questions on shale gas production. They were assisted by additional thirty experts. Scientific achievements and independence from the gas industry, ExxonMobil in particular, were the criteria of expert selection. They key experts' conclusions, as stated in the report prepared in collaboration with ExxonMobil, are:

  • comparing with conventional gas production, hydraulic fracturing carries a number of new risks, due to a higher number of wells, the volume of water used, chemicals and a heavier vehicular traffic during production operations.
  • risk assessment revealed that slow and prudent gas production using hydraulic fracturing should be possible and there are no factual grounds for banning that technology.

In August of 2012, the German Ministry of the Environment and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency published the results of their studies on the impact of shale gas production on the environment. The report recommends a very prudent and restricted shale gas exploration made under strict supervision by the administration and the scientists.

According to the report published by the government of North Rhineland-Westphalia in September of 2012, the risks associated with shale gas production are hardly predictable. It was recommended to discontinue any exploration projects in the region until all of the risks involved are determined. The government accepted the recommendations and prohibited any activities until information permitting to resume the operations is available.

There are more reports of that kind and German scientific institutions embarked on research projects, such as interdisciplinary GeoEn initiative financed by the Ministry for Education and Research which includes the Shale Gas Information Platform (SHIP).

Besides shale gas extraction, other controversial energy technologies, such as wind farms, nuclear power plants, CCS or intelligent meters and networks, are in need of similar risk assessment projects.

24.07.2014 r.

author: dr Aleksandra Lis, Instytut Sobieskiego, UAM

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