LONDON – France and Bulgaria have already banned it, and in Britain the government’s attempts to promote it have led to heated demonstrations in the countryside. It is complicating Germany’s attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels and forcing Russia to recalibrate the energy-export strategy that sustains its economy.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has already revolutionized the energy business in the United States, which is now 87 percent self-sufficient for gas, and it is transforming environmental policy, too.
Now the temptation to follow the United States in extracting shale gas from rock on a large scale is presenting Europe with contentious trade-offs that could affect the Continent’s economic competitiveness, test its commitment to curbing climate change and determine its place in a 21st-century version of the Great Game.
The early signs are that densely populated Europe, with citizens generally more sensitive to environmental concerns and more willing to tolerate high energy costs, is unlikely to embrace the technique as the Americans have. In Britain, near Balcombe in West Sussex, England, up to 1,000 demonstrators set up a tent camp this summer to protest test drilling by the energy company Cuadrilla in what became a symbol of opposition to fracking. More than 100 people were arrested. The company removed its test rig and left the site in late September, but protesters like Ewa Jasiewicz from the group No Dash for Gas promised further protests if Cuadrilla returned.
Europe uses natural gas for about 24 percent of its energy – similar to the 28 percent in the United States. But gas from fracking represents only 0.1 percent of the energy supply, compared with 15 percent in America.
In France as well as Britain, public debates over fracking have been mirrored by disputes in the government over competing concerns about economic growth, energy security and environmental protection. Poland is pressing ahead with fracking, eager to lessen its dependence on Russia as a supplier. France’s 2-year-old ban on fracking is facing a constitutional court challenge and pressure from energy companies. But in some ways the debate is just getting going – and Europe is confronting the implications of the choices it has made so far.
With shale gas altering the global energy equation, how to balance the triangle of energy security, climate change and economic efficiency is a kind of “energy trilemma,” said Heather Haydock of Ricardo-AEA, an energy and environmental consulting company.
The issue is another focal point in the more general debate in Europe over how far to go in reducing reliance on carbon fuels, a movement that is much further along than in the United States.
“There is a lot of oil and gas all over the world, so having access to shale gas is better for your trade balance but doesn’t change the energy equilibrium in Europe,” said Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total, the energy company based in France. “People think that access to shale will produce the same effect as in the United States, and it’s not true.”
The increase in American natural gas supplies has already meant that American coal, displaced by cheap gas in American power plants, is being exported cheaply to Europe in large amounts, despite its deleterious impact on air quality and carbon dioxide emissions. With the European economy largely still in the doldrums, energy demands are lower, carbon credits are plentiful and cheap, and coal ends up being one-seventh or one-eighth as expensive to use as natural gas.