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Cautious optimism for EU energy future; controversial shale gas could play a role

EPP hearing stresses importance of natural gas in solving European energy problems

By Robert Cote

 

(Wikimedia Commons) A shale gas operation in Wyoming, America. The spokesperson for the Commissioner for Environment says the controversial energy source is subject, in Europe, to the same protections as oil drilling.

Thursday’s European People’s Party hearing on the future of Europe’s energy supply ended on a fairly positive note, with Vice-President of the European Parliament Alejo Vidal-Quadras noting he was left feeling “optimistic” about Europe’s future. He did, however, offer suggestions on where Europe needed to put in some work.

“Energy can be an instrument of co-operation with other partners and friends,” Vidal-Quadras said, adding “Diversification of routes and sources is a priority.”

Echoing that idea was Poland’s Marcin Korolec, there in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Ministry of Economy.

“I hope we will soon stop discussing theory and start discussing expedience,” said Korolec. Korolec did not, however, share the same happy sentiments regarding the future of European Union energy policy.

The hearing delved into the various projects –primarily natural gas- that were being planned to meet Europes’s growing energy needs. A lack of a cohesive, Europe-wide policy was blamed by many speakers, including Korolec, for getting Europe a raw deal in trade, and for slowing down the progress of the European Union.

“It is almost embarrassing that a body like the EU struggles with energy policy,” Korolec said. “We could find ourselves fighting energy poverty, our proud industry forgotten,” he added, to applause.

The loudest ovation of the day, however, went to Professor Alan Riley, of City University in London. Pointing out huge increases in shale gas production in both America and China –both of which, Riley says, are projected to take over the one and two spots on the list of natural gas exporters-, Riley said the increasing fluidity in the market presented Europe with a huge bargaining advantage over Russia, now the leading global supplier.

“There is an enormous amount of shale gas around the planet. China is talking about 100 trillion cubic meters of gas. We will have to ask Russia, do you want to be a marginal supplier, or a major partner in Europe’s gas market?” said Riley.

The hearing concluded with an emphasis on the completed Nordstream pipeline from Russia to Germany, and discussions of the planned “Southstream” pipeline into Italy, and how it was important to put up a unified front on the supra-national level in order to get the best deal for Europe.

Quadras concluded his portion of the hearing by saying “We import 60% of gas, 80% of oil. We cannot ignore this. We must ensure there is coherence in external energy policy.”

Shale Gas

Despite a heavy Polish representation and a lengthy segment by Professor Riley devoted entirely to the subject at the hearing, the issue of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing was only barely glossed over, discussed only in terms of economic feasibility and environmental benefit.

“If you increase the load-bearing factor of gas power plants… to 70%…You’re talking about a 25-30% reduction of CO2 emissions,” said Riley, explaining that would allow the equivalent number of coal-powered stations to go offline. In tonnes, that amount would translate to over 250 million tonnes of CO2 annually, helping the EU on its course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020.

While the emissions of natural gas are known to be far less than those of fossil fuels, opponents of the shale gas industry nonetheless believe it to be far too dangerous to be used as a source of energy. Groups like American Rivers and Greenpeace, as well as the 2009 documentary “Gasland,” have been highly critical of the shale gas industry, pointing to possible chemical spills and contaminations of the water table as being evidence that pursuing shale gas as a resource is unsafe for those people who live in close proximity to hydraulic fracturing –the technique used to get at the gas locked in the shale

rock- operations.

Though Greenpeace was unable to respond by deadline, an information page on the American branch’s website stated “At least 260 chemicals are known to be present in around 197 products and some of these are known to be toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic. These chemicals can contaminate groundwater due to failure of the integrity of the well bore and migration of contaminants through subsurface pathways.” This, combined with concerns with air and noise pollution, water waste, and the destruction of habitats of wildlife, has put Greenpeace squarely in opposition to the pursuit of shale gas.

DON’T PANIC

Joseph Hennon, spokesperson for European Comissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik, says the discussion is a very emotional one; however, environmental standards apply to hydraulic fracturing just as much as they do to drilling for oil.

“It may be a new source of energy, but… it’s covered by the health and safety regulations, by the environment regulations and by the liability regulations. From our point of view, we’re looking at how it’s going,” said Hennon. He added, “We have no business stopping member states from exploring new sources of energy, and we’re a long way off from having [European] shale gas on the market.”

Hennon points to the REACH legislation and the protections it affords as reasons hydraulic fracturing would be better controlled in Europe than in America. As to reports from the American government and from Cuadrilla, which is involved in the hydraulic fracturing operations in the UK, Hennon was unable to comment.

“It’s so new. Is it worth it? We’ll see, I guess,” Hennon said.