As 'Fracking' for Gas Takes off in U.S., Europe Proves Hesitant

Article excerpt

Decisions on whether to extract shale gas could affect economic competitiveness, test Europe's commitment to climate change and determine its place in a 21st-century version of the Great Game.

France and Bulgaria have already banned it, and in Britain the government's attempts to promote it have led to heated demonstrations in the countryside. It is complicating Germany's attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels and forcing Russia to recalibrate the energy-export strategy that sustains its economy.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has already revolutionized the energy business in the United States, which is now 87 percent self-sufficient, and it is transforming environmental policy, too.

Now the temptation to follow the United States in extracting shale gas from rock on a large scale is presenting Europe with contentious tradeoffs that could affect the continent's economic competitiveness, test its commitment to curbing climate change and determine its place in a 21st-century version of the Great Game.

The early signs are that densely populated Europe, with citizens generally more sensitive to environmental concerns and more willing to tolerate high energy costs, is unlikely to embrace the technique as Americans have. As an indication of the skepticism, E.U. lawmakers gave initial approval on Wednesday to a measure requiring companies to conduct extensive environmental audits before fracking for shale gas.

In England, near Balcombe in West Sussex, up to 1,000 demonstrators set up a tent camp this summer to protest a test drilling by the energy company Cuadrilla Resources in what became a symbol of opposition to fracking. More than 100 people were arrested, including a member of Parliament for the Green Party, Caroline Lucas. The company removed its test rig and left the site in late September, but protesters like Ewa Jasiewicz promised further protests if Cuadrilla returned.

Europe uses natural gas for about 24 percent of its energy -- similar to the 28 percent in the United States. But gas from fracking currently represents only 0.1 percent of the total energy supply, compared to 15 percent in the United States.

In France as well as Britain, public debates over fracking have been mirrored by disputes inside the government over competing concerns about economic growth, energy security and environmental protection.

Poland is pressing ahead with fracking, eager to lessen its dependence on Russia as a supplier. France's two-year-old ban on fracking is facing a constitutional court challenge and growing pressure from energy companies. But in some ways, the debate is just getting going -- and Europe is already confronting the implications of the choices it has made so far.

With shale gas altering the global energy equation, how to balance the triangle of energy security, climate change and economic efficiency is a kind of "energy trilemma," said Heather Haydock of Ricardo-AEA, an energy and environmental consulting company.

The issue is another flash point in the broader debate in Europe over how far to go in reducing reliance on carbon fuels, a movement that is much further along than in the United States.

"There is a lot of oil and gas all over the world, so having access to shale gas is better for your trade balance but doesn't change the energy equilibrium in Europe," said Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total, the France-based global energy company. "People think that access to shale will produce the same effect as in the United States, and it's not true."

Given political constraints, population density and the difference in land ownership -- individual landowners in Europe generally do not own mineral rights under their land -- the model in Europe will be different, he said.

"But the issue is not shale gas," about which there is a lot of fear and ignorance, Mr. de Margerie said. "People are against carbon, against fossil fuels, and we are missing important opportunities. …