Acceptance for Shale Development in Europe is Growing
Acceptance of shale development in Europe is increasing, but not at a pace to suggest that shale oil and gas will be part of Europe's near-term energy or economic solutions.
Over the past year there have been significant changes in the European shale development landscape. A 2012 study by ESCP Europe researchers identified social risks as those risks of greatest consequence for investors and companies seeking to explore or produce shale gas or oil in Europe. That has not changed, but the level of uncertainty surrounding social risks in Europe is declining. This is likely because of better public understanding of the issues; concerns over carbon emissions; frustration with rising energy costs; continued concerns over Europe's economic conditions, particularly when contrasted with what shale is doing for the US economy; and fear of losing economic competitiveness.
In March, University of Nottingham researchers released the results of a year-long study highlighting ever-increasing public understanding of the benefits of shale gas and a gradual shift in the acceptance of shale gas as part of the UK energy mix. That same month, the London School of Economics published a paper written by leading British climate change researchers backing shale gas as a means to support developing a low-carbon power sector by replacing coal in the coming years.
In France, where the Government's hydraulic fracturing ban on shale exploration and production remains in effect, there is growing public understanding and awareness of shale gas. This evolution is apparent in the results of two recent French Institute of Public Opinion polls. In an August 2012 survey conducted for Le Monde, 84% of those polled had heard of shale gas; just six months later, that number had increased to 92%. Similarly, in August only 44% claimed to know "what it is;" that number climbed to 53% six months later. (By contrast, only 51% of the American public knows that "fracking" is a process that extracts natural gas, according to a Pew Research Center poll released April 22nd).
Various efforts have sprung up over the past year to help inform public understandings. Some, such as Shale Gas Europe, are industry-supported resource centers seeking to promote an understanding of shale gas. Others are independent, such as TNO, a think tank in the Netherlands that recently produced an Argument Map laying out opposing views in the shale debate. So, while many people still are reflexively opposed to shale development in Europe, the debate is increasingly being characterized by informed participants and that leads to informed decision-making.
The European petrochemical industry has come out strongly in support of shale development, as high energy prices are lessening Europe's competitiveness in that sector. Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Lithuania have all given high-level backing to shale gas exploration as central and eastern Europe seeks to break their reliance on Russian energy. Last December, the British government lifted its moratorium on shale gas and oil exploration. In February, Germany issued a draft law permitting the use of fracking technology under very strict conditions. This approach pleased neither shale gas opponents nor supporters, but it essentially takes the issue off the political agenda until after this fall's election. German industry is particularly concerned about high electricity costs, since electricity prices partially finance subsidies for renewable-energy producers. According to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), industrial electricity prices per kilowatt hour have risen nearly 40% over the past five years, and electricity prices for German industries are 15% higher than the average found across the European Union.
Finally, pragmatic environmental concerns are also influencing acceptance for European shale development. Last year, German greenhouse gas emissions increased 1.6% as the increased use of coal for power generation reversed the trend in carbon reductions. In contrast, US carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions, are at their lowest level in 19 years due to increased use of natural gas for electricity generation. On both sides of the Atlantic increasing numbers of environmentalists are supporting shale development as a way to reduce coal use, though there are legitimate concerns that natural gas, rather than serving as a "bridge" to a renewable future, could instead ultimately impede progress toward greater renewable energy production in the future.
The primary impediment to European shale development now appears to be regulatory delays - and these will just have to be worked out. National politics, the processes of a 27-member European Parliament, different hydrocarbon tax regimes, and issues regarding mineral rights are just some of the elements contributing to these regulatory delays. But, the longer it takes to work through these regulatory issues, the greater the negative effect it will have on Europe's economic, energy and environmental goals.