Europe’s shale gas battles
- 11 Sep 2012, 16:00
- Robin Webster
With Lib Dems and the Conservatives
reportedly at odds over the prospects for shale gas in the UK,
it's worth remembering that there's also a political fight about
shale gas going on at the European level. The European Commission
has released three new reports about shale gas as debate continues
in the European Parliament around how the shale gas industry should
be regulated. The new reports highlight that considerable
uncertainty still surrounds the question of how much shale gas
contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
The commission released the three
studies last Friday. The first, by the European Commission's
Joint Research Council, examines the effect shale gas might
have on EU energy markets. Two others, carried out by British
consultancy AEA Technology, interrogate the effects of shale gas
production in the EU on
greenhouse gas emissions, and assess the risks the technology
health and local environment.
Impacts on climate change
What do the reports tell us about the effects of shale gas on
the climate? The two most important questions are what the direct
emissions are from burning shale gas compared to other fossil
fuels, and the potential impact of shale on the future energy
supply mix - for example, whether the technology could crowd out
The report dealing with climate impacts tries to assess the
complete lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from producing shale
gas in the EU. Not surprisingly, the study concludes that emissions
from shale gas generation are significantly lower (41 to 49 per
cent) than the emissions produced by coal fired power plants.
When assessing European shale gas against other sources of gas,
it's a bit more complicated. The report estimates that for
electricity generation, greenhouse gas emissions from shale are
four to eight per cent higher than pipeline gas from within Europe,
but two to 10 per cent lower than gas or gas-generated electricity
imported from outside Europe.
But there is a fair bit of uncertainty involved in these
figures. The literature on the accidental release of methane during
the extraction process - so-called fugitive emissions - is pretty
The report notes that the figures are "far from clear-cut". Under a
worst-case- scenario, total emissions from shale "would be similar
to the upper emissions level for electricity generated from
imported LNG and gas imported from Russia".
Shale gas as a bridge fuel
Joint Research Council study also takes a brief look at the
likely impact of shale on the mix of energies we use to generate
It includes an analysis exploring what might happen if global
carbon dioxide emissions fall to about 60 per cent of 2010 levels
by 2040. The report concludes that this trajectory is not
incompatible with a (constrained) growth of natural gas, leaving
"potential role [for] natural gas as a bridge fuel" - although it
also notes that this analysis excludes additional lifecycle
emissions - like fugitive emissions and leaks during transport of
Fight over proposed regulation
These reports are being produced as there appears to be a fierce
debate at European level over how shale gas extraction should be
At the moment there are no specific EU-level regulations
governing shale gas projects. In its climate-focused report, AEA
recommends updating EU regulations, and developing "evidence based,
reporting systems, estimation methodologies and emissions factors"
to focus on "the most significant and most uncertain new sources of
[greenhouse gas] emissions from shale gas".
According to a report in the
Warsaw Business Journal, this prompted criticism from Poland's
treasury minister, who said the report was "misleading the public".
Poland potentially has a lot at stake on the outcomes of reports on
shale gas emissions as new legislation aimed at abating them is
likely to raise the costs of producing shale gas - of which Poland
Euractiv website argues that these European Commission reports
"will add fresh fuel to a backstage battle" currently taking place
over two other reports on shale gas by European parliamentary
committees. One is from the
industry and energy committee and the other from the
environment committee. Once they are finalised at
the end of October, these two papers will represent the EU
Parliament's position on shale gas.
April draft of the environment committee report calls for "a
thorough assessment" of the European regulatory framework, adding
that "improvement measures" should be taken, where necessary.
Green MEP Claude Turmes told Euractiv that the behind-the-scenes
debate over the environment committee paper is "fierce". It is not
clear how much of this debate relates to potential regulations
impacting on greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas - but a Green
adviser in the EU Parliament told us that Greens on both committees
have tabled several amendments. According to our source:
"[These] include looking at the
emissions of shale gas in relation to renewable energy sources, and
for investment in shale gas to not replace investment in renewables
or energy efficiency measures".
This conflicts with the position of the two reports' lead
authors, both of whom are supportive of the growth in shale gas
production, so the eventual outcome is uncertain.
Whatever the result, it seems likely that if shale is going to
form a significant part of the energy mix without risking an
expansion of emissions, then some form of assessment and regulation
process will be needed. The outcome of Europe's shale gas battles
could well decide just how stringent the legislation is.