EU countries revisit shale gas amid energy crisis

Shale gas production may be brought back on the table to alleviate the European energy crisis similar to coal and nuclear power, which had long been shelved due to mounting reactions from environmentalists.

Shale gas is extracted through a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which has been criticized for its damage to the environment by contaminating ground and surface water.

In response to concerns over climate change, European Union nations have been implementing eco-friendly energy transformation policies for many years, ignoring energy supply security.

However, the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine war has prompted European countries to reassess their energy policy alternatives, putting a higher priority on energy supply and security than ecological strategies.

Coal use revisited

European nations have implemented plans and initiatives to phase out coal resource use over the past 30 years, particularly in light of the growing sensitivity to the negative effects of climate change.

Production from coal mines and power plants, which have long contributed to the security of the energy supply and have been running profitably, has been shut down or reduced in many EU member states.

The share of thermal power plants, which made up 40% of the EU's electricity production in 1990, fell incrementally each year down to 13% in 2020.

However, many countries have pivoted towards coal as an energy resource due to rising demand following the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, both of which exacerbated difficulties in obtaining energy sources like oil and natural gas.

Energy generation from coal reached 15% in 2021 and even grew further following the war. Before the end of 2022, the share of coal in electricity production is estimated to reach as high as 20%.

As a measure to counteract potential natural gas supply disruptions from Russia, several European nations, like Germany, France, England, and Austria, have already developed coal plans.

These nations have turned to reviving their coal-fired power facilities or extending the operational periods of the plants scheduled to shut down.

Nuclear power plants revival

The energy supply crisis also caused changes in strategies and plans to shift away from nuclear power.

After the Fukushima nuclear power plant leak in Japan in 2011, nuclear power plant safety concerns spread to European nations.

Amid these fears, the process of exiting nuclear power facilities was sparked by the competitive costs of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, and a decline in the cost of renewable energy as well as public pressure from environmentalists in Europe.

Several countries, particularly in Europe, have changed their stance against nuclear power as a result of the global energy crisis.

France has announced plans to build 14 new nuclear reactors and invest in small modular reactor (SMR) technologies by 2050.

The UK government has approved the Sizewell C nuclear power plant to be built in the southeast of the country.

Germany has agreed to extend the operating periods of three nuclear power plants.

Belgium will extend by ten years the operation of two nuclear power plants that were destined for closure.

While the Netherlands has kickstarted investment plans for two new nuclear reactors, Poland began preliminary studies on nuclear investments.

Shale gas option

With the US becoming the world's energy self-sufficient producer and one of the largest energy importers thanks to the shale gas revolution, it is now widely debated if European nations will change their shale gas policies and plans.

The recent sharp increase in natural gas prices, breakthroughs in shale gas extraction technology and the fact that the cost of extracting natural gas is more affordable than supplying it from other countries once again brought the shale gas option to the fore.

“EU member states are free to choose their energy sources, with shale gas being one of them,” European Commission Spokesperson Tim McPhie told Anadolu Agency.

“If a member state decides to go for shale gas, relevant EU legislation must be applied,” he said, citing a 2014 EU law on environmental protection.

According to Simon Dekeyrel, a European Policy Center (EPC) policy analyst, shale gas has resurfaced on the political agenda of some European countries like the UK, where both prime minister candidates have declared their support for domestic fracking.

However, Dekeyrel noted the same structural constraints that impeded a European shale boom at the beginning of the 2010s still exist today.

Energy expert Dekeyrel believes these reservations will likely lead national governments to other exceptional measures to tackle the current crisis by significantly accelerating the rollout of renewables and increasing energy efficiency.

Dekeyrel cites several factors that impede a shale revolution in Europe, while the US is benefitting widely from shale production at a time when many countries worldwide are looking for more efficient energy sources to reduce energy costs.

For Dekeyrel, “less favorable geology compared to the US, higher population density, less favorable regulatory frameworks, higher environmental concerns/public opposition, better mobilization of environmental groups” are among these factors.

However, environmental concerns regarding shale remain, and as the energy crisis in Europe intensifies, there is a high probability that short-term security of supply concerns will trump these environmental concerns, Dekeyrel said.

“In fact, this is already the case, as the EU's surging imports of American LNG in recent months demonstrate,” he said.

Environmental reservations around shale gas production

Studies on shale gas have intensified in Europe over the past 10 years.

According to EU reports based on data by US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the quantity of extractable shale gas in Europe is estimated to be around 13.3 trillion cubic meters.

Poland has the largest reserves at 4.2 trillion cubic meters, followed by France with 3.9 trillion cubic meters, Romania with 1.4 trillion cubic meters, Denmark with 900 billion cubic meters, England with 700 billion cubic meters, the Netherlands with 700 billion cubic meters, Germany with 500 billion cubic meters, and Bulgaria with 900 billion cubic meters.

European countries that avoid shale gas due to environmental consequences are buying resources extracted by the US using the same method.

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