It is little surprise, given the albatross around Europe’s neck of continued dependence on Russia, that yet untapped domestic sources of gas have been touted by some strategists, including the European Council itself, as a way to increase energy security. Because energy policy is still a core competency of the member states, not the EU, there is a wide range of approaches to shale gas among states.
The United Kingdom comes closest to commercial-scale production of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, but as Nick Riley, former head of Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society, recently pointed out, there has not been a well fracked for gas in the UK since 2011, largely owing to political opposition and a slow rollout of government regulations on well integrity and chemical use. The current UK government, adamantly pro-fracking though it may be, is realising that in spite of attempts to bribe local governments with generous cash payouts on a per-well basis if they too embrace fracking, resistance in local jurisdictions is formidable.
France’s outright ban on using hydraulic fracturing to extract gas and oil reflects both public scepticism toward the technologies used, the specific circumstances of France’s very high percentage of nuclear power in its energy mix, as well as the nuclear industry’s influence in domestic politics. Germany and the Netherlands have in place softer moratoria on shale gas, ones that essentially adhere to the precautionary principle and put the burden on exploration companies to prove that the environmental impacts of fracking are minimal.
Romania and Bulgaria, with 1,444 and 481 billion cubic metres (bcm) respectively of technically recoverable shale gas, would seem natural candidates for shale gas development given both countries’ dependence on Russian imports, but public opposition to fracking remains high in both countries, and a ban on fracking in Bulgaria led US energy giant Chevron to pull out its operations before it had made any headway in exploration. Romania’s government is currently more positively disposed toward fracking, but not much has happened on the ground. While there have been widespread allegations of Gazprom attempting to manipulate public opinion against shale gas in Southeastern Europe, my own impression having talked to people there is that the enemy you know (Gazprom) is better than the enemy you don’t know, especially when the unknown also potentially carries risks to groundwater supplies and the landscape. Given the slick, well-funded pro-fracking media campaigns of the big players, it also seems too easy to blame a Gazprom conspiracy for being able to orchestrate public opinion against fracking.
Poland has been the EU member state most enthusiastic about exploiting its potential shale gas reserves, which at over 4,000 bcm are also Europe’s largest (Poland currently uses about 18 bcm of gas per year, nearly all of which is imported from Russia via the Yamal pipeline). As we have argued before, and as has been more or less confirmed in the interim, commercially viable shale gas development in Poland is an uphill prospect at best, despite the giddy enthusiasm of government officials after estimates of shale potential for the country were released in 2011. Poland has a history with its bigger neighbours, to put in shorthand what everyone knows, and the warm embrace, literally and figuratively, between Russia and Germany, Putin and especially former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (now of Nord Stream AG) was viewed by many in Poland as yet another betrayal in a long history of long-distance handshakes across Polish territory. The US government, always eager to help Poland and even more eager to promote its companies abroad, expected a double bonus: spiting the Kremlin-Gazprom nexus while helping to further enrich job creating enterprises such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other smaller home-grown energy companies.