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Getting Under the Surface of Shale Gas Extraction

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Shale gas could mean lower fuel prices, increased energy independence and new jobs so the decision about whether to go ahead with it should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, a number of ecological concerns mean it is not that simple. The European Parliament has been weighing the potential drawbacks and benefits to determine if it is worth the risk.

Shale gas is comparable to conventional natural gas but until recently the resource, trapped in rock formations one or two kilometres beneath the surface, was impossible to extract. New technologies now make it possible to extract it at a slightly higher cost than natural gas. It involves injecting large quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the rock formations to recover the gas. There are concerns that this method of extraction could lead to environmental problems, but more about that later.

What makes shale gas interesting to European countries is that we have substantial reserves so it could help to increase our energy security and lower prices. At the moment more than half of EU energy is imported and only Denmark and the Netherlands do not rely heavily on external sources. About 40% of gas imports come from Russia, but after disruptions to the supply in 2009 during its dispute with Ukraine, many countries would welcome the chance to reduce their dependency. Could shale gas extraction help with this?

Exploration has already been permitted in a number of member states: Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK. If important discoveries are made, they could consider moving on to extraction. Other countries - such as France and Bulgaria - have decided for the time being to suspend exploitation plans.

That is due partly to environmental concerns. Although shale gas could potentially help to reduce CO2 emissions by replacing coal in power generation, there are concerns about how the extraction process might affect the environment, such as contaminating groundwater. There are also fears of blowouts, above ground leaks, seismic effects and chemicals and wastewater spillage.

As EU countries consider its possibilities, the European Parliament tasked two of its committees with covering all possible angles on shale gas extraction. The environment committee investigated how it could affect the environment while the industry and energy committee considered industrial and energy aspects. Both committees produced detailed reports on the best way forward based on a careful consideration of the potential risks and benefits.

In two resolutions adopted on 21 November, MEPs said the decision to embark on shale gas drilling should be up to member states, provided they proceed with caution and follow strict rules.

Shale gas extractions offers tantalising prospects but any rush to get there without taking the necessary precautions could lead us to repent at leisure.

The infographic on shale gas extraction has been produced by the European Parliament.