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MEPs reject European fracking ban, call for tighter regulations

European lawmakers remain bitterly divided over shale oil and gas development, but they have rejected calls to impose an EU-wide moratorium on exploration

However, MEPs have urged that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) be subject to tight regulation.

The European parliament passed two separate shale oil and gas resolutions on 21 November. The first, proposed by Niki Tzavela, an MEP from Greece, recognised that member states have the right to decide on shale development for themselves, but also called on member states to adopt “robust regulatory regimes” to guard against potential environmental damage.

A separate measure, proposed by Polish MEP Boguslaw Sonik, was also passed. This called for a “thorough analysis” of existing EU regulations related to shale development, reopening a debate over whether Europe will implement EU-wide legislation to govern unconventional oil and gas development.

In a report published last year, the European Commission concluded that existing EU regulations sufficiently covered early licensing and exploration activity. The commission, though, has included in its agenda for 2013 an initiative to “deliver maximum legal clarity” for the industry and other stakeholders, Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said during the debate over the measures.

However, the parliament rejected an amendment from a coalition of Green MEPs that would have imposed a moratorium on further shale development. The amendment was defeated 391 to 262, with 37 MEPs abstaining.

The cautious approach taken by MEPs allowed both shale-gas supporters and opponents to claim victory.

“The endorsement of the two reports calls for both exploring the potential of shale gas and ensuring its development is done in a sustainable way for both the economy and the environment,” Mónica Cristina, a spokesperson for industry lobby group Shale Gas Europe, said.

Carl Schlyter, a Green MEP from Sweden, who warned that shale gas could “destroy the future of mankind”, welcomed the resolutions. The reports, he said, “underlined growing public concerns with shale gas and the damaging methods for its extraction and urged caution to be exercised while the health and environmental impacts of shale gas are assessed.”

In rejecting a ban on shale development, similar to those in place in France, Bulgaria and parts of Germany, the European parliament recognised the potential economic and energy security benefits that shale gas could deliver to Europe.

“Shale gas is fuel that can be extracted and should be extracted in Europe,” Sonik said. He warned, though, that development would only be successful if industry and governments adequately addressed local community concerns over the potential health and environmental effects of development. “Any project will only be successful with the support of local citizens,” he said.

The European parliament resolution noted that advances in fracking technology could significantly reduce risks of water contamination, pointing to a project in Austria where OMV has proposed replacing chemicals typically used in the fracking process with cornstarch.

Meanwhile, shale-gas exploration has continued at a relatively slow pace across Europe and is delivering mixed results.

In Poland, which is the only EU country where exploration has been fully embraced, drilling has not proceeded nearly as fast as the government had planned. The country now expects just 20 wells to be drilled in 2012, compared to earlier expectations that more than 50 wells would be drilled. Companies blame slow permitting and uncertainty over future regulations and taxes for the slow pace of development.

In the UK, where shale gas resources are thought to be significant, Cuadrilla Resources suffered a setback in early November at a shale-gas exploration well in the north-west of the country at the Anna’s Road drill site, where it is exploring the Bowland basin. Well-monitoring equipment became stuck in the well at a depth of around 2,000 metres, forcing Cuadrilla to abandon the well and re-spud a new one.

 

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