Germany's new fracking rules pass cabinet / Experts question commercial viability of shale gas in Europe
New rules on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, passed by the German federal cabinet at the beginning of April may do little to quell the ongoing debate over chances and risks of the technology. In essence, the proposal drawn up by environment minister Barbara Hendricks places more restrictions on the practice for a limited period while holding out a promise of more flexibility four years down the road, a compromise palatable neither to advocates or opponents of shale gas.

In its current form, the legislation will allow test drilling immediately under certain conditions and commercial exploitation from 2019, where the tests show geological formations to be suitable. In any case, a six-member government-appointed committee of scientific advisers must approve any kind of activity. To avoid endangering drinking water supplies, exploration will be limited to areas where water protection and mining safety authorities declare it safe and restricted to depths below 3,000 m, although exceptions may be allowed.

Environmental advocates contend that the rules allow too many loopholes. As exploration can take place after 2019 without further study if the scientific committee approves, some have called the legislation a “fracking-enabling plan.” Drilling companies eager to get into the game still see their hands unnecessarily tied, and are especially unhappy about a provision that would make them liable for damage to the environment or property.

In the view of the chemical industry association Verband der Chemischen Industrie (Frankfurt;, the proposals as passed “do not provide a meaningful basis for exploitation." From its standpoint, “shale gas can play an important role in climate protection,” but more flexible rules are needed.

Following its long and protracted internal and external deliberations, Germany’s coalition government takes a different view. “This law will enable us to circumscribe fracking so that it no longer represents a danger to people or the environment. As long as the risks cannot be fully evaluated, fracking will be banned,” Hendricks said, while energy and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel said the government’s decision will create “legal certainty both for people and for the industry.”

Observers of the German move point to falling oil and feedstock prices – which are down by half against the mid-2014 level – as another potential threat to fracking, in particular as Germany’s geography renders the procedure more invasive and expensive. A study by Energy Watch Group (EWG;, an international network of scientists and parliamentarians, has warned against the expansion of shale gas extraction both in Germany and Europe.

The costs of exploration and the environmental damage produced by fracking are “out of all proportion to the amount of raw materials extracted,” EWG asserts. “Why should Germany take the risks when the energy and climate policy debate requires other measures, anyway?” Werner Zittel, the study’s author, asks rhetorically in the paper. “The apparent success overseas cannot be transferred 1:1 to Europe, where other conditions prevail,” he adds.
13.04.2015 [230904-0]
Published on 13.04.2015

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