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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.

Sounding the Silent Alarm on Migrant Health Care

Irregular migrants lie sick on the sidelines of the health care debate, as member states remain deaf to the EU call for uniform treatment

by Jasmine Papillon-Smith

A Roma woman, seen as illegal by the healthcare system, leans against a parking meter on a sidewalk in Brussels, Belgium, breastfeeding her newborn. She speaks neither French nor English.

White paint peels in flakes from the doors at 46, Rue d’Artois, Brussels, where old notices hang precariously from boarded-up windowpanes. “Everyone is treated equally here,” reads the sign facing a woman, who glances over both shoulders before walking through the double doors at the derelict address.
She is at the entry to the Belgian headquarters of Médecins du monde, where she hopes someone will help her. As of today, the EU is not that person.

The problem
A recent report by the Fundamental Rights Agency shows that the situation for access to health care by irregular migrants has not improved in spite of EU legislation on the matter, dating from 2007.

The report states that depending on the member states, migrants will either be charged a fee, or denounced to authorities, or simply not made aware of their rights in regards to health care. According to the report, children and pregnant women are made out to be the worst victims.

Stéphane Heymans is a project coordinator at Médecins du monde. He says the NGO, which was once a first response facility, has become a permanent solution for many of the migrants who cannot find a way to move forward in the immigration system.
“Over the past 18 months, things have become more complex. There has been a real degradation of the situation—we have too many patients, and the possibilities for references to general practitioners are decreasing as they become overloaded,” he says.
Over 10 000 people received treatment last year at the NGO’s Belgian division. More than 75% were illegal migrants.

The doors to the Medecins du monde headquarters in Brussels, 46, rue d'Artois

A call for uniformity
The woman, nameless, walks up to the two men sorting mail at reception. She extracts a plastic bag—reverently—from her purse. It is filled with papers, which she hands them. She then takes a seat in the waiting room, her sunken eyes belying the reality of her situation.

Ludovica Banfi is a project manager at the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union. She hopes the EU will pave the way for a more inclusive and harmonized pan-European treatment process.
“One positive thing was the resolution by the EU parliament in March 2011. It addressed the fundamental right to health care for these migrants and it called for member states to assess the possibility for the member states to provide, for example, a common definition of the basic elements of health care,” she says.
Many NGOs are calling for member states to provide this common definition—it would allow for more binding laws with regards to access to treatment, as well as make sanctioning a possibility.

Passing the buck: whose jurisdiction, exactly?

Decorating the walls of the Médecins du monde clinic are posters declaring universal rights of peoples and solemn, anti-racial philosophies. The woman we have followed through the clinic speaks neither French nor English, the language these signs are printed in.

The basic premise of health care advocates is that the lack of access is a direct violation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which decrees that all persons on EU territory have a right to free health care.
But the EU has no jurisdiction over health care—it is up to the member states.
Judge Egils Levits, of the Court of Justice of the European Union, stresses that in spite of EU legislation, interpretation of the charter is often left to member states.

“While the member states and the institutions are clearly part of the charter, the charter does not apply in situations where EU law is not involved or does not apply,” he says, stating that it is up to national entities, including their courts, to enforce fundamental rights.
Judge Levits stresses that questions dealing with the validity of EU law must be addressed, at the risk of having 27 different standards of protecting fundamental rights—one for each member state.
Jérôme Unterhuber, Press Officer for the Council of the European Union in Budget; Health and Consumer Affairs, says that the Council has not discussed the issue since the adoption of legislation in 2007. The matter is not on the upcoming agenda.
The cost-effectiveness of prevention
NGOs continue to advocate that preventive care is worth more than emergency care in the long run.
“It might be that countries in economic crisis invest more in primary healthcare because it seems more cost-effective (than emergency care),” suggests Banfi, who believes the path to common health care legislation lies in the economic benefits of preventive care.
The risk on public health continues to pose a problem, as studies have shown that people in irregular situations are more at risk for infectious diseases, like HIV, tuberculosis or hepatitis, which can spread if left untreated.

From member state to member state

What is presumably a doctor comes out to greet the woman. Luckily she is in Belgium, where the authorities will not be notified of her visit here.

Access to health care varies between member states. In Italy, for instance, migrants can obtain an anonymous identification card, which allows free access to treatment. In Germany, it is much the opposite: unless a migrant is seeking emergency care, doctors are obligated to report their consults to welfare authorities, which then take custody of the migrants.

This leads to complications. In once case in Brussels, a migrant woman received a blood transfusion of the wrong type due to the fact that she used her friend’s medical card to access treatment, resulting in her death.
In other instances, migrants flee hospitals to avoid payment. Doctors treat patients in their spare time.

Heymans cites the perverse effects of the system. He mentions the case in which it is beneficial to contract HIV, because member states are not allowed to return migrants to countries where treatment for infectious diseases is not available. Having HIV thus allows for easier integration.

Back to basics

The woman exits the examination room, tightens her shawl about her, and leaves the clinic, glancing once again over each shoulder.

For Heymans, the immediate problem lies in migrant access to health care in the EU. But on the long term, he believes the real problems lie abroad.
“What’s interesting in the debate is that people do not usually migrate out of the pleasure of doing so. If they’re moving, it’s that there are problems in their home countries: war, famine, poverty, etc., that are preventing them from accessing health care, or making them sick. We are trying to limit the influx of people without looking at where they come from, and if we could do something to stop the problem at the source,” he concludes.