Shale gas: a fracturing debate
Our economy and our lifestyle rely on growing energy demand. Technology could allow us to extract natural gas which was out of reach until now. How deep can we drill into the ground, and how deep should we drill into our hunger for energy?
Despite its limited area by comparison with other continents, Europe remains a region with one of the highest gas import needs. According to the International Energy Agency, domestic gas production in Europe is progressively declining, while increasing demand will push up imports to around 450 billions of cubic metres by 2035. This context explains the considerable interest shown worldwide in the American shale gas revolution, a phenomenon with concrete consequences for global gas and energy markets. Lively debates, however, have been stimulated by this matter, as serious environmental and health concerns accompany the process of shale gas extraction, raising ethical questions regarding the balance between positive, probable and negative effects.
What actually is shale gas?
Shale gas is an unconventional natural gas – similar to tight gas and coal-bed methane – trapped in layers of organic-rich rock formations in the ground. Its extraction requires two new and highly delicate technologies. The horizontal drilling involves drilling downwards for up to 7000 metres, then turning the drill horizontally for another 2000 m. Then hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is performed, which involves pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock. From the fractures produced the trapped gas can finally come to the surface along the well.
Three shale plays have indeed been found below Europe’s surface. So, what are we waiting for? Shouldn’t we rush to exploit this natural commodity?
A vivid debate among decision-makers and the general public in Europe
Supporters of a promising shale gas era in Europe often refer to its long exploitation in North America, where the first wells were drilled in New York State in the 1820s. Nonetheless, technology has allowed production at an industrial rate only in recent decades. Between 2000 and 2009 shale gas surged from 1% to 20% of US gas production, resulting in a significant reduction of energy prices and shifting the country from an importer to an exporter of gas, with evident consequences to the detriment of the European economy. Moreover, our high reliance on imports from often politically unstable regions is of great importance from the point of view of geopolitics and security of supply. Finally, diversity of supply is also a valuable measure to be implemented in order to fulfil the ambitious goals of EU energy and environment agendas.
On the other hand, shale gas production is highly problematic; above all because of hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, in fact, requires enormous volumes of water, which cannot then be reused as it is treated with sand and chemicals. Another source of concern is the induced seismicity registered in drilling sites, as a consequence of fracturing underground rock formations. This creates normally very weak earthquakes, but this poses a threat to well integrity, resulting in a risk of contaminating aquifers. In addition to this, analysts have demonstrated that shale gas has not the potential to significantly reduce Europe’s reliance on other or external energy sources.
These and similar considerations are reflected in the position taken so far by European institutions. The treaties leave Member States free to choose their own energy mix, so Poland is leading the shale gas exploration on the continent; France and Bulgaria have imposed a ban on fracking. However, some aspects of the whole process cross national borders, while others fall directly under European Union law, like water, chemicals or environmental liability.
Can and should the EU adopt a common position on shale gas?
European Union institutions are actively involved in determining whether and how Europe will set up a shale gas market. The European Parliament approved two non-legislative resolutions last November, one “on industrial, energy and other aspects of shale gas and oil” and one “on the environmental impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction activities”. On its side, the Commission has conducted three studies and one public consultation. The latter was closed last month and results will be published on its thematic webpage. Agreeing on the controversial nature of the matter, both institutions require more scientific research and effective involvement of citizens as conditio sine qua non to make appropriate decisions. Scientific accuracy and public accountability are surely the right way to go, but are we sure that possible and accepted equals just and fair?
A first ethical evaluation of fracking was issued last January by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies of the European Commission. The final report makes a very clear point. Only guarantees for safety and the environment should give the green light to fracking, but at the present stage it “should not be pursued within the EU”.
The Christian approach to creation and lifestyle provokes some specific reflections. First, exploitation of finite fossil resources clashes with long-term sustainability policies, especially in the context of a climate crisis. Secondly, drilling deep underground is a highly damaging, consuming (water, land, diversion of investments from greener projects) and invasive technology. Finally, exploitation of common goods as private commodity is far from being a generally accepted concept. Finally, is maintaining the current unsustainable energy model, rather than inspiring people to live better with less, really a good option ?
Decision-makers have then to consider all aspects at stake, as they hold the responsibility for undertaking irreversible actions towards a planet we all want to continue to call home.