What role will shale gas play in the Energiewende?

International onlookers sometimes wonder when shale gas will get going in Germany. Americans in particular think, based on their own shale boom, that the Germans could reduce their carbon emissions and lower their energy prices with shale gas. Craig Morris says the situation looks much different within Germany.

Shale Gas in Poland

Shale gas well in Poland – most likely to stay an exception in Europe, where public opinion towards shale gas is largely critical. (Photo by Karol Karolus, CC BY-SA 3.0)


In Europe, shale gas is unpopular. France has already banned it outright. The German government says that shale gas production can proceed “as soon as environmental concerns are assuaged” – which could be a diplomatic way of saying “never.” In February 2013, then-Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier said:

“I do not see fracking being used anywhere in Germany in the foreseeable future… To everyone who thinks I’m too careful about fracking: I don’t know any town or community that would accept it.”

The current coalition agreement of November 2013 between the CDU and the SPD did not change that stance.

German shale gas reserves are estimated to be large enough to cover 13 years of the country’s gas supply. Of course, the country would not shut down all imports of gas for 13 years, nor would it make sense to do so. Rather, domestic reserves would be stretched across decades, offsetting imports in the process.

Energy Priorities in the EU

Figure : Poland is the only country in the EU that has any level of popular support for shale gas, and even there only 32% of those surveyed want to have it. (Source: EU)

During that time, we would run the risk of contaminating ground water and the environment. In the US, dozens of families have been affected by individual wells. Because Germany is so much more densely populated, thousands could be affected in single cases. Germans therefore wonder why they should take the risk just for 13 equivalent years of slightly more energy independence.

One reason could be lower prices. In the US, gas prices dropped, but only in parts of the country; the US does not have not a contiguous gas network. Germany, in contrast, is part of a gas network connecting Russia to the Netherlands; northern Africa is connected to Mediterranean Europe. If shale gas were made available, it could be sold to the highest bidder through a large network of buyers, so prices would not drop.

Indeed, gas prices are currently still partly pegged to oil prices in Germany. Up to 2010, rising oil prices lead directly to rising gas prices. Since then, oil and gas can theoretically vary in price independently of each other, but lower oil prices in 2013 did not lead to lower gas prices (report in German). Even if this pegging were done away with altogether, gas prices would not fall because the gas could be sold on such as large market; Germans would just be taking risks with their environment so that gas companies could post greater profits.

A recent publication (May 2013) by Friends of the Earth found that the potential of shale gas may also be overstated:

  • the five biggest gas wells in the US declined by 63% to 80% in the first year
  • industry has downgraded its reserves several-fold in recent years
  • firms such as BP, BHP Billiton and Chesapeake reduced the value of their shale gas assets accordingly by billions of dollars

In Europe in particular, FOE sees the aforementioned combination of population density and water scarcity as a general problem. Furthermore, a study conducted by the German KfW bank found that the US industrial sector overall had not become more competitive with the German industrial sector during the shale boom largely because energy prices make up such a small share of total costs (two percent), though the situation is different for a small number of firms that specifically consumer large amounts of natural gas.

Finally, low fossil fuel prices are not a goal of the Energiewende; keeping carbon in the ground is. As laudable as the efforts are to curb carbon emissions by switching from coal to shale gas, in the end we just take more carbon from the ground when we extract shale gas. What the world needs is an energy alternative that allows us to leave both fossil reserves in the ground. Germany is working on the most promising alternative now: renewables in combination with efficiency.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

by

Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

5 Comments

  1. Stephen says

    Christian is correct.

    To make shale gas ‘low carbon’ compared to coal requires heroic levels of engineering to firstly detect, then verifiably seal leaks in the system from well head all the way to the point of combustion. In the case of the US, this would entail continual inspection of some 2.5 million miles of gas pipe.

    Due to material aging, this level of vigilance would have to be maintained long after production ceases.

  2. Mark Ohe says

    Agree with Christian and Stephen above. Methane is an enormous threat to climate.

    A terrific post from Craig Morris. As someone living in the U.S. suffering from the short-sighted delusions of shale gas extraction it’s very heartening to read thoughtful and balanced news on this subject. Appreciate everything EnergyTransition.de is doing to continue speaking truth to power.

  3. Rick Bosman says

    There might be an even more pressing reason why Germany is most unlikely to take the shale gas route, and this has to do with its national drink: beer. The association of German brewers has expressed its concern with regards to the potential impact of fracking on the quality of the water with which the golden liquid is brewed. The likelihood that you will get anything done in Germany while brewers oppose your plans is slim.

    Link to brewers’ point of view: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-23/german-beer-purity-threatened-by-fracking-say-protesting-brewers.html

  4. Rob says

    The Germans need to remove their blinders, open their minds & base their perspective on coal gas on the science & facts verses baseless fear.
    Germany is currently sitting on potential massive amount of potential shale-gas methane. Methane currently is the greatest energy source heating German homes & most Germans like living in warm homes. Methane is currently the cleanest hydrocarbon energy source available. Comparing methane as anything similar to coal is done so completely from ignorance. Contamination of ground water is a factor of the geology of an area. One can only assess the potential environmental risks to ground water on case to case basis relative to area geology.

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