Impacts Of Hydraulic Fracturing Ban In Europe

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Introduction

It’s no secret that hydraulic fracturing has long been under intense scrutiny due to environmental concerns and the scare of earthquakes. About 10 years ago, France banned hydraulic fracturing and has held strong. Once France put strict regulations in place, many other European countries followed suit. This fell in line with the shale boom timeline and has dampened Europe’s ability to access large amounts of shale gas reservoirs. As of 2016, there were no commercial shale gas wells in Europe.

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Europe’s current conventional producing fields are becoming more and more depleted as time goes on and has caused Europe to have to increase their hydrocarbon imports. Even with the increase in imports, regulations have held strong and prevented the further exploration of these shale gas resources. Many countries in France are working to address the climate crisis, which is such a hot topic currently. The countries stance on climate crisis has a direct and negative impact on their ability to reduce the policies preventing hydraulic fracturing. These policies will likely leave large shale gas resources untouched and prevent Europe from decreasing their gas imports.

Where the Ban Started

France was the first country to ban hydraulic fracturing in 2011. The law, referred to as “Jacob’s Law,” forbids “exploration and exploitation of liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons through hydraulic fracturing.” This ban was not initiated from any tangible incident in France, but rather due to pressure from environmental groups as stated by Healy. The ban doesn’t restrict exploration or development of shale gas, just the process of hydraulic fracturing itself. During the several years following France’s ban, many other European countries fell in line and banned hydraulic fracturing as well. As of 2016, at least 5 countries in Europe had a ban on hydraulic fracturing which has hindered the research and development of shale gas resources. Countries such as Germany, implemented a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing that is set to expire in 2021, at which time they plan to re-evaluate. Germany approved a limited number of permits for exploration and research purposes in hopes to further evaluate environmental impacts brought on by hydraulic fracturing post moratorium.

Political Opinion

Political Environment of France

The current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has taken a stand and implemented new measures to ensure that the ban on hydraulic fracturing remains in place. (Bello, 2017) France is a key player in the climate crisis effort and intends to steer all energy production away from non-renewables; meanwhile France remains a large importer of liquid natural gas (LNG.) Wiele wrote in 2016 that until public opinion changes; it is unlikely that the French government will reverse its stand. Differences in procedures or new technologies will likely have to become economically viable options before France continues to explore the clean energy resource available to them.

Environmental Concerns

A large part of the reason that hydraulic fracturing is not accepted widely by society stems from environmental concerns and scares of the long-term impact. Even though much research on hydraulic fracturing and it’s effects on groundwater has been done, most results show that contamination is actually caused by poor well design (i.e casing and cement) and not the process of hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing does carry inherent risks but there are also several mitigation factors, such as casing and cement design, that companies employ to minimize the impacts of said risks. Unfortunately, many of the environmental groups that support the hydraulic fracturing ban are unaware, uninformed or uneducated on the mitigation procedures exploration companies employ to ensure the mitigation of hazards to groundwater and atmosphere.

Public Education on Hydraulic Fracturing

Secondary reasons for opposition to the exploitation of shale gas reserves include the amount of correct, educational information available to the public. Mainstream media, rallies and protests all the potential harm hydraulic fracturing could cause. Residents of France became very concerned about what could happen to the groundwater and let their decision be driven by fear rather than fact. If the countries of Europe are interested in expanding their ability to hydraulically fracture shale gas reservoirs, the first step is to work on educating the public. Educational tools made available to the public could help reduce the fear around potential harm to the public and the environment.

Financial Incentives

Finally, social acceptance of hydraulic fracturing has an enormous effect on the likelihood of a future change in policy. Since a large amount of the reserves in Europe are under state-owned land and there is little to no private ownership, the royalties and bonus structures cannot be used as incentive. With no financial incentive and large concern around public and environmental safety, hydraulic fracturing may stay banned for quite some time in large parts of Europe. Having a “social license to operate” plays a large role in energy companies strategic planning and exploration goals. As long as there are basins with easy access to land and regulations that allow activity, the highly regulated shale gas resources will remain unexplored, very uncertain and unable to move out of the “potential” category.

Countries Affected

Countries Opposing Hydraulic Fracturing

The US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2013 report stated that Europe alone has 221 TCF of technically recoverable shale gas resources. There is still a great amount of uncertainty around this number but there is no doubt Europe is setting on a large amount of recoverable, clean energy that current policy prohibits producing. However, it is known that the leader of the ban on hydraulic fracturing (France) is the European country with the second largest unconventional reserves. Fortunately, the gas reserves are not going anywhere and will still be available to exploit at some point in the future if policy changes. Reports developed in 2016 as part of a European Union (EU) Oil and Gas Association study state that hydraulic fracturing is only permitted in 7 countries; including Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine and England. It also states that there are 15 countries with an unclarified position, no support or strict prohibition on hydraulic fracturing. Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany and Ireland all strictly prohibit any hydraulic fracturing activities; even though Germany, France and Ireland all have shale gas resources with potential that have had no formal assessments.

Factors Impeding Further Exploration

There is little known about the shale gas deposits in Europe due to the small amount of exploration data. Due to the bans on hydraulic fracturing there have been very few wells drilled in these basins to further assess the resources. Outside of the ban on hydraulic fracturing, several other factors put a limit of the reality of shale gas development across European countries as discussed in Le’s report. Europe’s gas pipeline structure is very minimal and not connected to areas of shale gas deposits. In addition, fresh water sources are limited in areas of shale gas deposits. Population densities and poor social acceptance are also factors that could negatively impact any future exploration of European shale gas resources. Finally, the market structure is favored by just a few major companies and there are very few service companies with technical capability or skilled laborers to complete the work.

Impact to energy independence

In 2017, Europe was a net importer of energy. Eurostat stated that Europe produced 45% of their energy while importing 55%. If Europe is interested in becoming energy independent, policies around shale gas exploration and development will likely need to be revisited. Europe has made it publicly known they are transitioning to being more reliant on renewable forms of energy. As of 2017, only 14% of the EU’s energy came from renewable sources. Lightening the policy around shale gas would allow them to decrease their dependence on energy imports during the transition to renewables. Shale gas does not have to be a long term solution but could definitely fill some of the gap in the interim.

Conclusion

All in all, the shale gas resources in Europe are large and should not be ignored. However, the current policy period prevents further exploration while there are still many uncertainties surrounding these resources. The current societal concerns involving hydraulic fracturing will keep the practice banned in many European countries; especially in the midst of our climate crisis sociopolitical environment. With many of these European countries spearheading the global emission reduction efforts, the shale gas resources will likely remain untapped until new technological advances have been made or until the countries determine they no longer want to be a net importer of natural gas.  

16 December 2021

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