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 poses to 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 renewable power.

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 inconclusive. 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

The Joint Research Council study also takes a brief look at the likely impact of shale on the mix of energies we use to generate power.

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 the gas.

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 regulated.

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 has significant reserves.

The 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.

The 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. 

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