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Monday, September 10, 2012

European Commission issues 3 important studies on shale gas

So far, very limited fracking has been done in Poland and the UK.  But potential exists in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Romania, Lithuania, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary. So The European Commission has published three studies to help inform the debate on shale gas development in the EU and to help ensure an appropriate legal framework is put in place to govern shale gas extraction. 

The studies look at the potential effects of shale gas development on energy markets, on climate, and the potential risks to human health and the environment.  All of the studies are explicitly grounded in experience, data – and concerns – arising from the shale gas boom in the U.S..

The first – a study on the EU energy market - concludes that significant shale gas development in Europe could both lower gas prices and limit the EU's import dependency, but not make Europe self-sufficient, as has been the case in the US.

The second - a study on potential risks to the environment and human health from fracking - cites “widespread public concern” about a familiar set of risks.  They include use of significant volumes of water and toxic chemicals; well integrity; the risks of spills and leaks of chemicals and wastewater; risk to groundwater and biodiversity; truck traffic; air and noise pollution; seismicity; visual impacts; and landscape impacts. 

Two points are of note.  First, the study says that a shale gas well can be re-fractured up to four times during a typical 40-year well lifetime, meaning that landscape wounds, once opened, may stay open for a long time before any reclamation occurs. Second, the study cites a UK study that found that the risk of drinking water contamination from fracking is “remote” if more than 600 meters of separation is maintained between drinking water sources and the producing zone. But it goes on: “However, the potential of natural and manmade geological features to increase hydraulic connectivity between deep strata and more shallow formations and to constitute a risk of migration or seepage needs to be duly considered.”

The third report on climate impacts aligns with a growing number of assessments in the U.S. that greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas-powered electricity generation are significantly lower (41% to 49%) than those from coal-fired power. But if methane emissions  are not controlled, there could be no climate benefits to the EU.  That makes the use of best management practices - chiefly green completions and the techniques that U.S. EPA has adopted as requirements for gas production beginning in 2015 – essential. 

On the subject of regulation, the report is clear: “Robust regulatory regimes would be required to mitigate risks and to improve general public confidence.”  It cites the 2011 report of the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Shale Gas Subcommittee (SGS) and the IEA’s "Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas" report as exemplars. In particular, it endorsed SGS’ recommendation on characterizing  important landscapes, habitats and corridors to inform planning, prevention, mitigation and reclamation of surface impacts; effective monitoring and enforcement to inform on-going assessment of cumulative impacts; and declaring high value or environmentally sensitive areas off-limits to drilling.

The study recommended areas for further research:

  • the relationship of shale gas exploration to Carbon Capture and Storage
  • the use of micro-seismic monitoring for fracking
  • chemical interactions between fracturing fluids and shale, and displacement of formation fluids
  • induced seismicity
  • the development of green fracking chemicals
  • methods to improve well integrity
  • development of a searchable database of fracking chemicals
  • methane migration to groundwater from shale gas extraction
  • the development of a system of mitigation credits to offset development in sensitive areas

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