Tough new regulations could be slapped on the shale gas industry if the EU acts upon legislative and environmental failings identified in its most comprehensive analysis yet of the sector.
Shale gas drilling poses a ‘high risk’ to human health and the environment that is worse than that posed by other fossil fuels, according to a 300-page report prepared by the EU’s environment directorate. It is also currently unregulated.
The study identifies eight areas of high-risk due to the cumulative effect of multiple shale wells, including the contamination and depletion of ground and surface water, and degradation of biodiversity, land, air quality and seismic conditions.
Water contamination is considered a high risk because of the industry’s hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – technique. It involves drilling horizontally to shale deposits at depths of up to 3km, and pumping in large amounts of water, sand and chemical lubricants at high pressure to shatter the brittle rocks.
The sand fills geological pores, preventing the well from collapsing, while the gas migrates upwards, along with some water contaminated by fracking chemicals and other pollutants, including low-levels of naturally radioactive material.
Because of the health and environmental risks, the study recommends that fracking should only be allowed under strict conditions, and not yet on an industrial scale. No fracking should be be allowed in areas where water is being used for drinking purposes.
But the environmental risk asessment – one of three EU reports to be released today (7 September) – contains a list of gaps, uncertainties and barriers in current EU statute spanning four pages.
The Water Framework Directive, for example, does not allow the injection of ‘pollutants’ into groundwater reserves, which the reports authors say may occur in shale wells, depending on their geological character.
Equally, the report’s authors believe that under the Mining Waste Directive, ‘flowback fluids’ – the liquid containing toxic chemicals that returns to the surface after shale drills – could fall foul of the Mining Waste Directive.
Unlike other fossil fuel extraction industries, shale gas operations would currently be under no obligation to produce the impact assessments demanded by the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.
That legislation, which applies a single volume threshold only to the industrial extraction of more than 500,000 cubic metres of gas per day – substantially more than shale wells produce – was drawn up before the unconventional fuel was even head of.
The new EU study recommends that environmental impact assessments should be made mandatory for proposed shale gas operations. An expert forum will address this question in December, before the European Parliament finally deals with it.
The new reports will add fresh fuel to a backstage battle currently raging over two European Parliament shale gas reports, seen by EurActiv, which should be approved later this month, although their text may change.
An amended version of the environment committee’s paper currently says that “a thorough analysis of the EU regulatory framework regarding specifically UFF [unconventional fossil fuels] exploration and exploitation is needed.”
It calls on the Commission “to propose, as soon as possible … appropriate measures, including legislative [ones], if necessary.”
The amended draft of a separate industry committee report written earlier this summer similarly says that large-scale shale gas extraction “may require a comprehensive adaptation of all the EU’s relevant existing legislation”.
It proposes “an in-depth impact analysis” by the European Commission into the effects of the unconventional fossil fuel.
Brussels insiders say that the Commission now faces a choice between three options: offering ‘soft guidance’ to industry; amendments to existing legislation, or a standalone instrument such as a new directive.
This debate may be hard fought. The EU’s energy directorate favours a soft regulatory touch exemplified by a report earlier this year by the Belgian law firm Philippe and Partners, which concluded that no further European legislation was needed.
But officials within the EU’s environment and climate directorates are more cautious about giving the green light to an industry that faces prohibition in some EU countries due to its environmental implications, which have even been linked to earthquakes.
One EU source contacted by EurActiv echoed concerns voiced in a paper by Britain’s influential Chatham House institute last month that the unconventional fossil fuel could in practice substitute for renewables, rather than fossil fuels.
“But it is important not to be reductionist about it because climate change is so pressing now that a transition from coal to gas in the short term is a good thing,” he added, “so long as it does not crowd out renewables in the long term.”