One of the most influential members of the European Parliament is proposing a new directive that would penalise or even ban the exploitation of shale gas, the controversial new fossil fuel that is tipped as the major energy source of the future.
Jo Leinen said he wanted a new ‘energy quality directive’ that would mean fuels with adverse environmental impacts – such as shale gas and oil from tar sands – were stringently regulated within the EU.
Leinen chairs the EU parliament’s committee on the environment, public health and food safety. He has the power to bring forward proposals that could make it into law within a few years.
Shale gas extraction has been linked to a wide variety of environmental problems, including pollution of the water supply, excessive use of water resources and potential seismic effects. In France, further expansion of the shale gas industry has been banned, and in the UK drilling operations have been halted after two small earthquakes near the exploration sites. However, operations in the Lough Allen basin area of Roscommon/Leitrim are going ahead.
Although gas produces only half of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with coal when burned to produce electricity, one study from Cornell University has suggested that the true emissions related to shale gas could be greater than those from coal, if factors such as methane leakage during the extraction process were taken into account.
Plans for a directive on energy quality are likely to be fiercely resisted by the gas industry, which for months has been lobbying strongly for shale gas to be accepted as a ‘green’ alternative to renewable energy.
A report from the International Energy Agency also found that gas was not a ‘panacea’ and that pursuing gas as the main energy source for the future would cause global warming on a serious scale, raising temperatures by much more than the 2 °C that scientists regard as the limit of safety, beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.
There is dispute over the environmental effects of shale gas drilling, fuelled in part by the secrecy of the gas industry in the US, a pioneer of shale gas exploration. Several studies are now under way, including one spearheaded by Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, through the institute he also chairs, and one undertaken by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, Poland which has just taken over the EU Presidency, said the development of shale gas across the EU should obtain the status of ‘a common European project’, adding that it intends to promote the development of unconventional gas during its term.
A Polish minister said that research in his country on developing shale gas was advancing at ‘unprecedented speed’ and that Warsaw was willing to share its experience ‘in the EU framework’.
Marek Karabuła, vice-president of the Polish Oil and Gas Company (PGniG), used a technical term from shale gas development, saying that there was a need to ‘crack the minds of people’ with respect to shale gas. The unconventional gas is obtained by hydraulic fracturing (cracking or ‘fracking’) deep into basins containing shale rocks.
He said that despite videos circulating on social media presenting shale gas as a threat to the environment and a danger to consumers, awareness would be raised in Polish society that shale gas is ‘good’ and ‘safe’.
To proponents, shale gas represents a hitherto untapped and alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. In the US, shale gas already accounts for over 10% of US natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.
BP’s former chief executive Tony Hayward has described shale gas as a ‘game changer’.The People’s Movement has launched a new pamphlet entitled The European Stability Mechanism and the case for an Irish Referendum (click on the title to access).