Europe’s Shale Gas ‘Revolution’: Why Russia Is Shrugging Its Shoulders

September 22, 2012

Poland last year unveiled designs not only to cast of its irksome energy dependence on Russia, but also to become a European energy exporter by making a drive for shale gas production starting in 2014. The European power is hoping to repeat the United States’ shale gas revolution after Poland published surveys that estimated it is sitting on colossal untapped gas deposits lodged in shale rock. Such reserves may extend throughout Europe.

“Frankly speaking I don’t share this optimism,” said Tatyana Mitrova, head of Global Energy at the Skolkovo Energy Center. “It usually comes from politicians and other public persons who do not have experience in the gas industry. According to our estimates, unconventional gas in Europe is not a game changer – it will most likely develop, but a repeat of the U.S. shale gas boom is doubtful.”

   On the one hand, surveys have located eye-watering deposits. The U.S. Department of Energy says Poland could be sitting on 5.3 trillion cubic meters of unconventional gas – enough to satisfy over three centuries of domestic supply and enough to deal a massive blow to Russia which currently supplies around two thirds of this demand. The thinking is that Poland along with Ukraine, Norway, and others thought to have hefty reserves, can emulate the example of the United States where in 10  years – practically overnight in the plodding history of energy – shale gas production rocketed to almost 5 trillion cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

   But the road to unleashing Europe’s volumes is paved with stumbling blocks, say analysts. Not least of these is the fear of the pollution and geological instability potentially triggered by shale gas drilling. Natural gas deposits trapped in shale rock are accessed through underground horizontal drilling as sand and chemical laced water is blasted down to keep the fissures open. The latter process – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – has spurred fears that it contaminates groundwater and could trigger subsidence and even earthquakes. A recent documentary film on the side effects of fracking making waves in the United States depicts a man setting fire to tap water as it runs from the tap in his house.

   France, Switzerland and Bulgaria have banned fracking outright because of environmental worries. In the United Kingdom where small deposits have been located in the north, it has been suspended amid calls for a blanket ban and its viability is currently being debated in Germany. Moreover, Europe’s drive for unconventional gas is only in its nativity and the list could grow, given the continent’s restrictive environmental law, high population density, numerous protected areas and the likely noisy opposition of local governments fearful of the impact on the tourist industry. That, at least, is the feeling in Moscow: Gazprom, which has publicly dismissed Europe’s shale gas vision, says that the entire process carries “significant environmental risks.”

Green Lobby

   The green lobby wields less muscle in coal-reliant Eastern Europe, while opinion polls in Poland