Germans Line Up Against Fracking, Spurred by Fears of a U.S.-Style Boom

To try to distance itself from U.S. fracking policies, the German government has proposed a ban on fracking for shale gas, but not fracking for tight gas.

German activist protests in favor of the Energiewende, renewable energy transition, and against natural gas fracking. Reports of water and air contamination from fracking in the United States and concerns about climate change are driving German opposition to the natural gas drilling method. A recent government proposal would ban fracking for shale gas, but allow fracking for tight gas. Credit: Michaela, flicker, March 2014

BERLIN—In Germany debate is raging over whether to allow fracking, and America's example is serving as the cautionary tale for both supporters and critics.

Germany's biggest energy companies and some politicians are using the U.S. drilling boom to argue the country would benefit from tapping shale gas buried under two of its 16 states. Supporters say Germany must greenlight fracking—especially as calls intensify to end dependency on Russia, which supplies a third of Germany's oil and gas. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists and others see the United States as a warning of what may be in store if Germany embraces fracking—but for them the lessons from America involve air, water and climate change pollution. The "negative effects connected" to U.S. fracking are "worth gold" to German activists, said Andy Gheorghiu, a member of the citizens' protest group Fracking Free Hesse.

Critics worry mainly that developing natural gas production would undercut the Energiewende, Germany's shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable energy. Environmentalism is deeply ingrained in German society and public protests helped prompt the law. Today solar panels and windmills form a distinctive part of the country's landscape. But this transformation came at a cost: In 2013, Germany's household electricity prices became the second highest in the European Union due to clean energy subsidies and high taxes. Despite that, the Energiewende remains widely popular.

The fracking debate reached a peak in early June, when a leaked report from Germany's energy ministry revealed that fracking regulations would be presented before parliament's summer recess. Criticism erupted around the country, spurred by fears of a U.S.-style fracking boom. Within weeks, Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel was under public pressure and on the defensive. He told the popular weekly news magazine Focus, "The fracking technology that's used today in the U.S. and Canada will not exist in Germany."

The proposed regulations, released in early July, would ban fracking for shale gas, found in hard shale formations, except for experimental fracks. The regulations cover only fracking in tight gas, which is found in dense sandstone and limestone at depths of 10,000 feet or greater. The German government has promoted tight gas as safer than shale because it's located deeper below earth's surface than shale (farther from water) and its fracked wells use fewer fracking fluids. Any fracking in the country, for tight gas or experimental fracks for shale, would also be banned in water-protection areas, which cover about 14 percent of Germany's surface.

Both critics and supporters have said the new proposal doesn't go far enough to clearly outlaw—or encourage—fracking, and there are still many unknowns as the proposal awaits a vote. No date has been set.

No one can say for certain whether Germany could indeed frack in a way to minimize pollution risks. The process releases natural gas by pushing pressurized water and chemicals into rock. Fracking, especially in shale formations, has boomed in the United States, where a lack of federal regulation and inconsistent state oversight have led to reports of contaminated water and air.

Supporters boast about their intention to develop a uniquely German version of fracking, but the details remain unclear. Lobbyists representing the German energy industry suggest that developing safer fracking fluids to meet German environmental standards could be one way to sway skeptics. Supporters from gas and oil companies stress that the method would be applied differently because of Germany's high safety standards—and because fracking for shale gas would be banned. The government proposal advocates the following:

  • Allowing fracking only at 9,300 feet (1.8 miles below the surface) or deeper;

  • Monitoring soil and surface water in fracking areas;

  • Using fracking fluids with minimal hazardous effects on water;

  • Developing a way to regulate flowback, the mixture of fracking fluids from within rock formations.

Stefan Leunig, a spokesperson for Wintershall, Germany's largest gas and oil producer, which supports the proposal, said, "The United States is not Germany, shale gas is not tight gas and we have a very strong environmental safety agency in Germany."

Germany would learn from the United States' mistake of scant government oversight at the beginning of the American shale boom, Leunig added: "Five or 10 years ago...the beginning of shale gas extraction in the United States was comparable with a gold rush."

Sanitizing Fracking's Bad Image

Germany has as much as an estimated 2.3 trillion cubic meters of recoverable shale gas. That's 17 percent of the supply in the United States, the world's leading producer of natural gas. Other estimates place Germany's shale supply at a more modest figure of 1.3 trillion cubic meters or lower, with tight gas lagging far behind at only around 0.1 trillion cubic meters. Its neighbors in Europe have been caught up in their own debates over fracking, with varying conclusions. France and Bulgaria, for instance, have imposed a moratorium on fracking. Poland has embraced fracking, only to have some companies abandon projects when shale production fell short of estimates.

Given Germany's need to declare energy independence from Russia, is it realistic to expect that Germany would forgo that much shale gas in the name of environmental security?

The proposed regulations are set for review in 2021
, which means shale gas extraction could be back on the table.

For now the two German officials responsible for enforcing the proposed regulations—Economy and Energy Minister Gabriel and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks—are focused on sanitizing the bad image of tight gas. Ministers Gabriel and Hendricks now refer to fracking for tight gas as "conventional fracking" and for shale as "unconventional." Such a distinction is rare in the U.S. fracking debate. This new wording, activist Andy Gheorghiu said, attempts to change public perception of tight gas fracking and "make it look as nice as possible for the industrial lobby."

The ministers also emphasize that fracking is not an import from the United States—that fracking for tight gas has been allowed in Germany for decades, just without extensive regulations.

According to Germany's Federal Environmental Agency, the equivalent of the U.S. EPA, at least 478 fracking experiments have been performed in the country since the 1960s. Three were tests for shale gas, while the majority were for tight gas and just a few for coalbed methane. Most of Germany's experience with fracking for tight gas took place in the northern state of Lower Saxony, generally at 11,480 feet (nearly 2.2 miles) or deeper.

German politicians and the natural gas industry tout the safeness of fracking for tight gas, but Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said such fracking in the United States has left environmental damage.

"The rules need to apply to all formations, but in general, we're concerned about the risks, whether tight gas, coalbed methane or shale," Mall said.

Tight or Shale: Inonsistent With Energiewende

Germany's Energiewende requires the phasing out of nuclear energy by 2022 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at least 80 percent by 2050.

Gas companies and industry lobbyists argue that natural gas is compatible with the goals of the Energiewende because burning the fuel releases a smaller volume of CO2 emissions than other fossil fuels. Anti-fracking activists and some scientists, meanwhile, criticize the labeling of natural gas as a clean energy source. New studies, including research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have exposed the hazards of the fossil fuel's often underestimated emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

A 2012 report on fracking commissioned by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia identified methane emissions from natural gas production as one of its major environmental dangers. The director of the organization BUND Friends of the Earth Germany's local office in North Rhine-Westphalia, Dirk Jansen, said in an interview that increased natural gas production would compromise Germany's plans to save energy. "Part of the Energiewende is that by the middle of the century we want to decrease energy consumption in Germany by at least 50 percent. We want to decrease our use of energy from fossil fuels and invest more in energy efficient technology. That means the need for fossil fuels is going to drop massively," he said.

Because of the historic impact of Germany's environmental movements, politicians from across the spectrum continue to pay attention to people's concerns about fracking pollution. An anti-fracking petition started this June now has 660,000 signatures. A recent poll shows that more than three of every four Germans want stricter environmental standards for fracking. Germany's powerful beer industry objects to fracking, which it fears could taint water supplies vital to brewing.

"In Europe and in Germany, the sensitivity to the topic of fracking and of course to environmental questions is a great deal higher than in North America," said Carsten Rolle, secretary of the World Energy Council's German section. Last year, for instance, Hannelore Kraft, a politician from the center-left Social Democratic party and governor of North Rhine-Westphalia—where there have been tests to explore shale resources, visited fracking sites in the United States and Canada. Upon returning to Germany, Kraft declared there would never be "unconventional" fracking in her state while she is in office.

Germany's natural gas and oil companies seem to understand that they're up against sophisticated and powerful opposition. As the debate continues in the lead-up to a parliamentary decision, fracking supporters carefully voice their appreciation for the Energiewende while emphasizing that fracking will comply with the country's high environmental standards.

A video on ExxonMobil Germany's website explains fracking as an important supplement to renewable energy as the country aims for its Energiewende goals. Clean drinking water, the video says, is a priority, "but who else can show how that's done if not for the engineering country Germany?"

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