Controversy about EU financing of shale gas research and about unconventional fossil fuels

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In the Horizon 2020 programme, a facility has been created to allow companies to finance research in shale gas fracturing. This purpose has been widely criticized by environmental NGOs, who say the €113m of the programme contradict EU climate change policy and could be afforded instead by the companies who will benefit from the programme.

The aim of the fund is to help companies « identify potential environmental impacts and risks from shale gas exploitation by using satellite observation, developing models and establishing scientific recommendations for best practices ». Campaigner Antoine Simon from Friends of the Earth Europe says some of the « richest companies in the world » will benefit from the money, and underlines that there are « many more important energy efficiency and renewable energy research priorities ».

Shale gas is deemed by the EU to be low carbon because it « may help in the transition towards a low-carbon economy provided its air emissions, including greenhouse gas emissions, are adequately mitigated », according to an EU official interviewed by newspaper EurActiv. The setting-up of the fund was allowed by a European Council decision in December 2013. Previously, Connie Hedegaard, Climate Change Commissioner, had demanded European development banks to stop funding fossil fuels in their energy lending policy reviews. It has been widely reported that intense lobby work of the Canadian federal government, supported by the United Kingdom, succeeded in getting the European Commission to discard a long-standing project for separate accounting of tar sands in CO2 emissions, which are capped, in the Fuel Quality Directive.

CO2 emissions from gas are half as much as from coal or oil, but still exponentially more than those of renewable energies. A report from the UK government's chief scientific adviser David MacKay contradicts expectations of a mitigation of shale gas emissions : carbon emissions from shale gas may not be lower than those from Qatar LNG imports. The reports says that « the principal effect of UK shale gas production and use will be that it displaces imported LNG, or possibly piped gas from outside Europe. The net effect on total UK [greenhouse gas] emissions rates is likely to be small ». Legislation to reduce the incident emissions of greenhouse gases (esp. methane) from fracturing has also been strongly criticized : professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University says the oil and gas industry may be strongly tempted to cheat environmental regulations on the rigs.

The sector of « unconventional fossil fuels » (shale gas, shale oil, tar sands) is only at the beginning of its expected growth, and suffered various strategical setbacks. For instance, we learned recently that the shale oil reserves of what was dubbed a « black gold mine » in Monterey, California, were 96% lower than expected. Last year, the US Department of Energy also reduced by 42% its estimates for US shale gas reserves. Nevertheless US shale gas production is rising, and the Canadian tar sands industry has also started to export its products to the European markets very recently, triggering again a grassroot mobilisation in front of the Spanish refinery expected to receive the first barrels. Another mobilisation is going on right now in Algeria against shale gas, where fracturing has been recently authorised in contradiction with past announcements. Doctors, manual workers, teachers etc. are campaigning against drilling, but their chances of success are low.

Methane gas and chemicals used for fracturing were reported to massively contaminate water wells surrounding extraction areas. News 8, an American news broadcaster, has ensured for 2 years TV coverage of water flaring after exposure to a lighter. On June 5, they again met an inhabitant of the Parker county, owner of a well whose water turns into flames because of its methane content. The Railroad Commission of Texas, in charge of examining the gas content of the water and its origin, acknowledged to the journalists “they are aware of the high levels of methane concentration”. Up to 600 chemicals are involved in fracturing, including known carcinogens and toxins such as lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.

In separate events, during a discussion held by the European Commission on so-called “carbon leakages”, the Austrian government declared today that nuclear energy, shale gas as well as LNG are not a solution to reduce the energy dependence of the European Union. In North Carolina, the Senate has voted on May 20 to make it a crime to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, as supporters of the legislation say this will help develop the resource and create jobs.

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