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Germany proposes partial fracking ban for seven years

The environment minister cited the protection of drinking water and health as a high priority

Recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine have prompted a number of European countries to pledge to cut their reliance on Russian gas supplies by developing domestic resources. Germany, however, has ensured its reliance on imported Russian gas will continue by proposing a partial ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for the next seven years.

On 4 July, German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel and environment minister Barbara Hendricks proposed introducing measures which would only allow fracking for shale gas and coal-bed methane at depths greater than 3,000 metres below the earth's surface. Fracking would also be prohibited in areas where drinking water is thought to be at risk of contamination. Announcing the plan, Hendricks said: "There will be no fracking for economic purposes in Germany in the near future."

Under the proposed regulations, which have yet to be put before the German parliament, fracking would be allowed below the 3,000 metre threshold. However, it would be strictly regulated and could only be used for scientific testing. If passed, the ban will be reassessed in 2021 after studies have been carried out into the environmental effects of fracking. The government will draft regulations by the end of the summer, and aims for them to be enacted by the end of the year.

Gabriel and Hendricks told fellow members of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SDP) that the new fracking regulations would be 'the strictest that ever existed' in terms of environmental conservation. "Protecting drinking water and health has the highest value for us," Hendricks said. Hendricks and Gabriel are members of Germany's centre-left SDP which forms a coalition government with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party.  

Yet environmental campaigners claimed the proposals don't go far enough and have called for a complete ban on fracking in Germany. There has been strong lobbying from Germany's influential Green Party, as well as the country's beer brewing industry, to ban fracking over fears it will contaminate water supplies. The Green Party holds 63 seats in the country's parliament, the Bundestag - the highest number of Green party MPs in any European parliament.  

Oliver Krischer, vice chairman of the German Green Party, has called the proposal a 'fracking enabling law' adding that the 3,000 metre depth is essentially a loophole which will allow development to take place. Industry experts said it was not clear how the 3,000 metre threshold would affect shale-gas development in Germany because of differing shale depths. "Protection of aquifers is paramount. The brewers' lobby is on the move, but the bottom line is that 3,000 metres has no geological significance for shale gas at all," Brian Horsfield, research director of the Gas Shales in Europe project, told Petroleum Economist. "Areas have to be evaluated individually. Deeper or shallower limits might apply depending on the geology." 

German industry, meanwhile, has been lobbying hard to lift a moratorium on fracking which has been in place since 2012. While Germany had not technically banned fracking, the granting of permits has been put on hold since a 2012 Federal Environment Agency study was released assessing the environmental impact of shale-gas development. The study recommended shale-gas exploration shouldn't be allowed in drinking water protection areas. It didn't call for an outright ban, but said the process should only be allowed with strict regulation in place and should be accompanied by intensive administrative and scientific supervision. Although companies have been allowed to file requests to carrying out fracking, the bureaucratic stalemate has created a de facto moratorium.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates Germany's Lower Saxony basin could hold 2.26 trillion cubic metres (cm) of shale gas-in-place, with around 480bn cm of that believed to be recoverable. Germany's Federal Institute for Geoscience (BGR) is carrying out studies on potential reserves of shale gas and oil in Germany. The BGR expects to publish the study next year.

A recent study by IHS consultancy claims shale-gas development could, by 2040, add €138bn ($189bn) to the country's GDP , and translate to an extra €847 per year in disposable income for each German citizen. This compares to the costs of remaining committed to the current Energiewende - Germany's strategic plan to shift the country's focus from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Soon after the 2011 Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel set ambitious targets for increasing renewable energy's share of the country's energy mix. This will also see power generation shift from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy. Merkel wants renewable energy to make up 35% of Germany's energy mix by 2020, up from 23% in 2012. The government wants this to rise to 80% by 2050.

IHS estimates Germany could produce more than 20bn cm of shale gas per year by 2030, with production reaching more than 25bn cm/y by the middle of the next decade. The consultancy added that the country's shale gas resources could support domestic natural gas production through the 2030s, providing more than 35% of current German gas consumption.

Last year Germany imported 40.2bn cm of gas from Russia, according to Gazprom data. Germany is Gazprom's biggest European customer, accounting for a quarter of its total sales to the continent.  

Meanwhile, Ganther Oettinger, the European Union's (EU) energy commissioner, told local media that Germany should keep its options open regarding shale-gas development. In May the European Commission published an updated energy security strategy paper, calling on the EU to reduce its reliance on Russian energy supplies by increasing gas storage levels, improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of alternative fuels.

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