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Europe's two-horse shale race

Legal and environmental challenges are tying the hands of governments keen to exploit unconventional gas

Germany's position as the only European country with substantial production of unconventional gas could be under threat from Poland. From a late start, Poland is now producing more than 0.6bn cubic metres a year, with an increasing percentage coming from tight gas, according to the latest figures from the International Energy Agency. That compares with Germany's 0.58bn cm/y, mainly sourced from coal-bed methane.

However, by North American standards, European production remains a drop in the ocean, a state of affairs that's unlikely to change any time soon. For instance, the Czech Republic's production hovers around 0.1bn cm/y while France's output has collapsed to zero since the millennium from a peak of just over 0.3bn cm/y because of a ban on fracking imposed in 2011. In the UK, where there's a partial ban, production of coal-bed methane is below 0.1bn cm/y.

However, various governments continue to express interest in exploiting reserves of shale, and tight and unconventional gas, albeit against considerable political and public opposition. ExxonMobil, which has potential shale gas acreage in Poland, pinpoints Ukraine and Hungary as having commercial deposits of tight gas, the former also being rich in coal-bed methane. Romania, Poland, Denmark and Sweden (where Shell has drilled two wells) and the UK have more shale gas.

There is, however, a dearth of hard information about the size of unconventional gas deposits in Europe, especially since the closure of research organisation Gas Shales in Europe in 2012. In the UK, for example, the most recent studies are nearly four years old. These do, however, suggest there are substantial endowments including 37.6 trillion cm in the Bowland shale formation in northern England, of which between 8-20% is estimated to be recoverable, based on North American figures.

A case study for much of the rest of Europe, the UK continues its tense progress towards exploiting shale gas resources. There was another step forward in early 2017 when a High Court judge ruled against anti-fracking campaigners over planning permission awarded to Cuadrilla in two sites, both in Lancashire. The campaign had delayed Cuadrilla, a UK group, for two years.

The High Court decision means that two fracking applications are moving forward in the UK, the other by Third Energy in Yorkshire. Although no commercial operations have yet been authorised, a briefing paper by the House of Commons library notes cautiously these approvals "suggest the UK is getting close to commercial shale gas exploitation".

The UK government certainly wants unconventional gas exploited. The two-year-old Infrastructure Act provides the legal basis for what's known as the "underground access regime", including provisions for horizontal drilling. The laws also lay down a number of safeguards, for instance protections against fracking at depths shallower than 1,200 metres in defined areas. The government is also consulting on investment in communities where shale gas is being developed, including direct payments to households.

There's still considerable political flak. The opposition Labour party's late-2016 ban on fracking is unlikely to be lifted and the Scottish government's prohibition has been in place since 2015.

Meantime, in wider Europe, while the industry is standing by in expectation of a more supportive climate, it has been disappointed many times before.

This article is part of an in-depth series on Global shale. Next article is: Algeria and Saudi's differing shale development

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