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The latest science from Europe on fracking

Amy Mall

Posted October 10, 2012

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There are a few new reports from Europe on fracking that provide a lot of valuable information:

A joint report from Germany's Federal Environment Agency and Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety was released in September. Among the conclusions about the environmental impacts of fracking:

  • Fracking technology can lead to groundwater contamination.
  • There are current gaps in knowledge about environmental risks.
  • Germany should use a step-by-step approach on the use of fracking.
  • There should be tight restrictions and a ban in areas that provide drinking water and spa regions.
  • Experts advise against large-scale fracking.
  • An environmental impact assessment should be conducted for every fracking project.

Also in Germany, Exxon-Mobil funded a panel of independent experts to conduct a Hydrofracking Risk Assessment (the lengthy executive summary is available in English). Yes, you heard me correctly: while Exxon-Mobil financed the study, the company had no say in the content of the report or the selection of scientists and none of the scientists involved in the study had ever worked for the oil and gas industry prior to this project. Can anyone imagine ExxonMobil funding a similar project in the U.S.? The panel of experts was monitored by about 50 stakeholder groups. Among the conclusions about the environmental impacts of fracking:

  • Hydrofracking entails serious risks as well as minor risks.
  • Hydrofracking-induced incidents can do substantial harm to water resources.
  • The greenhous-gas footprint of shale gase is between 30 to 183 percent greater than that of conventional natural gas.
  • Some of the chemicals currently used in fracking should be replaced due to environmental risks.
  • Fracking should be banned in certain areas such as areas with severe tectonic risk, areas with pressurized artesian/confined deep aquifers and continuous pathways, and Germany's Zone I and Zone II drinking water protection areas* and thermal spring conservation areas (which may be the same as the spa regions mentioned above).
  • Before fracking is allowed in broad areas, a new legal framework is needed as well as additional scientific knowledge.
  • For now, the only fracking that should be allowed is exploratory wells and single model demonstration projects--under extensive safety conditions--designed to define and optimize the state of the art, gain a greater understanding of the impacts of fracking, and test practices. Such efforts should only occur along with extensive in-depth dialogue with stakeholders and new statutory and planning structures.

The European Commission's Environment Directorate-General also issued a comprehensive report (almost 300 pages) in September. It is a very thorough description of the fracking process, many of the best practices available to reduce risks, and European rules. Among its findings and recommendations regarding environmental impacts:

  • There is a high risk of surface and groundwater contamination at various stages of the well-pad construction, hydraulic fracturing and gas production processes, and well abandonment, and cumulative developments could further increase this risk.
  • Air emissions from numerous well developments in a local area or wider region could have a potentially significant effect on air quality including ozone levels.
  • There is a significant risk of impacts due to the amount of land used in shale gas extraction and it may not be possible to fully to restore sites in sensitive areas following well completion or abandonment.
  • There are gaps or inadequacies in EU legislation that could lead to risks to the environment or human health not being sufficiently addressed. 
  • Robust regulatory regimes are required to mitigate risks.

* In Germany, Zone I is 10 meters from a water well and the Zone II radius is the distance from which it would take contaminated groundwater 50 days to reach a water well.

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Sharon WilsonOct 14 2012 12:11 PM

Thanks, Amy, for condensing this all down to concise bullet points. It's very helpful.

Nick GrealyOct 14 2012 01:29 PM

Amy, think you're looking at the half empty glass, while the industry is looking at half full. No one in the European industry says we don't have concerns. And certainly not one of the reports say shale is dangerous enough to be stopped as some like Sharon Wilson propose. Thats certainly what the feeling is like here in Europe where we welcome these reports.
Look at what you left out for example:
CO2 emissions from shale gas are not worse than coal, they completely dismissed the Howarth study that proposed they were.
Methane emissions from shale gas are up to ten per cent LOWER than the pipeline and LNG imports that make up most of European supply
European regulations are far stronger than US ones and we don't need any new ones
Any European drilling will be on the most up to date technology. That includes 85% lower land use, 100% water recycling and food grade replacements for chemicals.

All in all, an incredibly positive result for European shale. At least us Europeans think so!

PeterkOct 14 2012 03:52 PM

you fail to point out this item from your link
"Extracting natural gas from unconventional deposits, for instance coal bed methane, "

apparently the report does not deal with shale gas, but rather gas from unconventional deposits. talk about disingenuous reporting

Sharon WilsonOct 14 2012 04:04 PM

Nick tries to put words in my mouth.

Amy MallOct 14 2012 04:14 PM

Peterk: There are links to three reports, and all three discuss "unconventional" natural gas resources including shale gas, coalbed methane, and tight sand. The reports discuss the risks of hydraulic fracturing in all of these types of deposits.

Amy MallOct 14 2012 04:17 PM

Nick: You are correct; I did not mention any comparisons made in these reports between natural gas and other types or sources of energy.

Nick GrealyOct 14 2012 04:55 PM

Page 57 of the German report states:
We see no objective reason why hydrofracking should be banned, for hydrofracking will consti- tute a manageable risk if the recommendations and procedures described in this report are fol- lowed. That said, in view of the new risk dimen- sion entailed by hydrofracking we feel that it is best to proceed cautiously, one step at a time, so as to allow for careful testing and ensure that hydrofracking is not pursued in haste.

That sounds reasonable to me. Note that of course since we're only in the exploration phase, nothing hasty will happen. If they discovered gas tomorrow, we'd be three to seven years before it could be accessed in any meaningful amounts, so haste is not an option. Which is sad for the world environment since Germany is now building coal plants due to opposition to nuclear and shale. And anyone who flies over Germany can't help but notice the massive number of wind turbines.

J.E.BrockmanOct 14 2012 11:17 PM

Many thanks for being on top of this, Amy. Just what we needed in Culver City/Los Angeles while we are addressing PXP's newly unveiled "study" of fracking in the Baldwin Hills/Inglewood Oil Field--which, of course they deduce is perfectly safe. In Europe, they don't have the serious earthquake risk we have, but their concern about fracking in densely populated areas is particularly relevant to us. Especially since their data are from N. America.

Tony BosworthOct 16 2012 05:34 AM

Please don't be fooled into thinking that Nick Grealy in any way represents "us Europeans".

Many people in Europe regard these reports as further evidence that fracking is a dangerous gamble with our local environment to get gas that we can't afford to burn.

Jaime ChimnerOct 16 2012 12:02 PM

Thank you Amy for sharing this. Through my networking it appears that Europe has their stuff together much more than us. Nick Grealy come to Northern Michigan and see what "safe practices" with any well or company they are in this State or Country. Thank goodness Europe may be learning from our BIG mistakes.

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