Though many environmentalists cheered two summers ago when Germany’s Bundestag seemingly banned fracking, natural gas production across the country has not stopped. L. Michael Buchsbaum explains how companies are pushing for shale gas fracking, despite its impacts on people’s health and the environment.
According to figures provided by the German Environmental Agency, last year the country produced over 7.3 billion cubic billion meters of natural gas. And enough loopholes were built into the 2016 regulations to allow “conventional” fracking to continue relatively unabated. However, the permitting of more challenging “unconventional” fracking in shale, clay, and coal seams (coal bed methane), was halted. But this ban is really only a temporary moratorium that, while in effect through 2021, can be overturned.
If indeed the new German coalition government is moving to establish an expert commission on fracking as several Federal ministers are claiming, then it is likely that a behind-the-scenes group of fossil fuel proponents and big-oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Germany’s largest producer, are using this as a Trojan horse-like tactic to pry the door open to all forms of fracking in Germany once again.
Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, is a method used for extracting natural gas, crude oil and other fossil fuels from deep rock strata. In order to do this, drillers shoot a mixture of millions of liters of water and a toxic stew of various other chemicals, along with thousands of tonnes of sand at extremely high pressure into the ground to force out gas and oil. Fracturing the host rocks surrounding the targeted gasses and liquids through the uses of explosives, acids, and various abrasive chemicals allows drillers to extract previously out-of-reach resources or squeeze more out of declining reserves.
Since the 1960s, there have been over 350 conventional fracks in Germany supporting 140 drilled boreholes, but production continues to decline. As it does, standard industry practice is to use unconventional methods to drive out the remaining oil or gas. According to the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Ressources (BGR), the potential of technically recoverable shale gas in Germany using both conventional and unconventional techniques is about 800 billion cubic meters. Another 110 billion cubic meters of technically recoverable tight gas resources are also within reach, and drillers are hungry for all of it. The German Environment Agency has estimated that at least 48,000 boreholes would need to be drilled across over 9,300 square kilometres to “liberate” the estimated resources of shale gas out of the ground.
One of the central misunderstandings of natural gas is that it is an environmentally healthy alternative to burning coal, since associated CO2 emissions are roughly 50% less when combusted. But natural gas is essentially methane, a much more robust greenhouse gas that, when released into the atmosphere, is at least 86 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat over a 20-year period and at least 35 times more over a century. Fracking for gas along with creating a massive pipeline infrastructure will almost certainly lead to fugitive methane leakage of between 4% and 12% over the lifetime of production. Fugitive methane escaping from natural gas development is largely suspected to have caused a massive 30% spike in emissions across the US since 2002 according to a Harvard University study based on NASA satellite data. Currently, there is no regime in place in Germany for methane monitoring and whatever statistics exist, are largely based on company estimates.
“Existing legislation has not succeeded in mitigating the risks and impacts of ‘conventional’ oil and gas activities in Germany. This has resulted in a number of environmental incidents already occurring,” said Andy Gheorghiu, Policy Advisor for Food & Water Watch Europe. Mining authorities and environmental organizations have documented numerous leaks from wastewater pipelines (connected to water and soil contamination) and earthquakes. Questions about the toxicity of old mud pits and the health impacts generated by the oil and gas extraction activities are also now being raised as Germany begins investigating possible contamination and health impacts related to the oil and gas industry. F&WW Europe and other environmental groups have detailed these in several comprehensive reports.
One of the exemptions for unconventional fracking in the new German laws is the authorization of up to four experimental wells, to be accompanied and reviewed by an independent expert commission assembled by the Federal Government.
The intent is to investigate the impacts of the required technology upon the environment, particularly the subsoil (the area through the first major rock layers) and the hydrological regime (the networks of water systems beneath the subsoil and in the areas containing gas pockets). Additionally, the affected State or Bundesland must also approve. And while as of June, there is officially no application for such a well, there have been increasing rumblings out of Lower Saxony for both the authorization of test wells and calls for the establishment of such an expert panel—that is the aforementioned Trojan Horse tactic.
In the Bundestag, Green-party MP Dr. Julia Verlinden has sounded the alarm, warning that if the government is about to establish a commission, then a decision has likely already been made to revisit unconventional fracking. “Now the cat is out of the bag,” said Verlinden. This ostensibly is the Federal Government’s “starting signal for shale gas fracking in Germany.” Her statements follow the new Minister of Economic Affairs in Lower Saxony, Bernd Althusmann’s (CDU) public call for an end to the moritorium following elections last fall that created a coalition between his party and the SPD instead of the previous CDU/Green partnership.
Althusmann’s office, in reference to the current federal legislation, stated that a blanket exclusion of test bores in unconventional deposits is legally questionable while continuing to demand Lower Saxony becomes the location of a pilot drilling program.
In response to questions from Buchsbaum, Verlinden stated that given all the evidence already known worldwide, “we do not need new tests to know that fracking for oil and gas bears too many risks for environment, water and health. Tests for shale fracking serve only to open the door for commercial shale fracking projects.” Indeed, the Greens will “keep demanding a ban on fracking for oil and gas without any exceptions. We will also propose not to provide public money for the fracking commission.” At the end of the day, says Verlinden, “we need to leave most of the natural gas reserves in the ground and focus on energy saving, energy efficiency and renewables instead of holding on to fossil energies and their infrastructures.”