The process of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock is not new in the United States, as many residents of Pennsylvania and New York know firsthand, but it has become a hot topic as the nation re-orients itself toward a future of energy independence.
The process, which involves pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break it apart and release gas to the surface, has been met with criticism -- namely, for the water contamination it can cause in the area around the site.
Now, a report on Yale Environment 360 notes that the controversial technique is hopping across the pond to Europe.
As you might expect, the Old Country has a lot of old natural gas lying around, an estimated 35 trillion cubic meters of it, according to International Energy Agency estimates. (To put that in perspective, the continent's total demand is approx. 580 billion cubic meters each year.)
Ben Schiller reports:
The question in Europe is whether the problems in the U.S. are a result of a particular regulatory regime (or lack of one) or whether large-scale shale gas development can be done safely given proper oversight. Groups like WWF say UK authorities should not allow shale gas development until more research has been done into exactly what is causing the water contamination issues. “We don’t have anything like the history of drilling that they have in the U.S.,” says Jenny Banks, energy and climate change policy officer for WWF UK.
“We don’t even know that the shale rock here is suitable for drilling. So there is a massive amount of uncertainty.”
The UK’s shale formations, which differ somewhat from those in the U.S. in their structure and porousness, may generate their own environmental issues, she says. Apart from the impact of the chemical mixture that developers put in the ground, there is also the possibility of releasing contaminants in the rock, including benzenes and radioactive isotopes.
One coveted resource in exchange for the other.
According to Schiller's report, the technique has Europe divided: the U.K. and Poland are openly exploring the practice, while France and Germany are protesting it.
It's not just the actual energy, either -- it's jobs. With lots of untapped natural resources comes industry investment, benefitting less economically well-off nations the most.
One wild card, in the case of Eastern Europe: domestic energy production may not help Poland and its neighbors truly stand on their own, since Russia "effectively controls pipelines running through Poland," Schiller writes.
Shale gas: green energy portfolio diversification, or the same game with a different name?
'Fracking' Comes to Europe, Sparking Rising Controversy [Yale Environment 360]