Some European countries such as Poland, England, France and Spain have significant reserves of shale gas; natural gas trapped in underground rocks. In principle, this could be deemed good news. Compared to other fossil fuels, natural gas is a relatively clean fuel and using it would reduce energy dependency on the continent, as has been happening in the USA.
So far, exploiting natural gas reserves seems to be a golden opportunity. This is what Josh Fox initially thought when one day he received a letter offering him $100,000 a year in return for allowing a company to exploit the gas reserve under his land on the banks of the River Delaware, USA. However, intuition and a healthy dose of suspicion led him to take his car and camera out and investigate the effects of fracking in the US in areas where logging began in 2005. The result of his investigation was Gasland, a chilling documentary that won the special jury prize at the Sundance film festival in 2010 and is relevant now more than ever on this side of the Atlantic.
Risks greater than originally thought
The process of hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - involves making a deep vertical hole of between 1, 000 and 5, 000 metres in depth, and another horizontal perforation in the layer of slate lying underground. Once this has been carried out, fresh water, sand and chemicals are injected into the perforations under high pressure in order to fracture the rock containing the gas and extract it.
The main risk of this process is the contamination of aquifers caused by the possible leaking of the chemicals injected into the rock. Additionally, toxic additives used to fracture the rock may make their way into the water and air supplies of neighbouring areas, which could potentially seriously impact the health of those who live there. It is also impossible to ignore the link between fracking and ground shaking, which has led to the interrupted operation of some wells in England. Finally, despite arguments from the gas industry that natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil, a study by Cornell university has shown that its carbon footprint is in fact higher than that of those fuels.
Europe is divided on the matter. While countries such as Poland and England have already granted permission for exploiting gas reserves, others are granting exploration licences. Other countries, such as France and Bulgaria, have banned fracking because of the possible risks posed to the environment by the process. This division is reflected in the mixed messages sent out by the European commission. Although the committee on the environment, public health and food safety conducted a study in 2011 which found that it would be necessary to develop a European regulation on hydraulic fracturing, a new study published earlier this year concluded that there was no need for further environmental regulation.
Since then, environmental and ecological movements seem to be clearer in their demands to stop hydraulic fracturing. In February, the Spanish region of the Basque Country announced that it would invest 100 million euros in 'fracking', joining. Although exploration licences have been granted in the Spanish areas of Cantabria and the Aragon Pyrenees, there is tremendous misinformation about the consequences of fracking. In addition to the arguments put forward by large NGOs such as greenpeace and ecologists in action since early 2011, several civic movements against fracking have emerged throughout the country. They all appear to be concerned about the risk that a political mistake- such as ignoring all evidence of the risks of fracking- could lead to the destruction and degradation of water resources.
'In Spain there is tremendous misinformation about the consequences of fracking'
Civic movements exist in other European countries and mobilise regularly. In March it was the turn of Romania, where several thousand people protested against the exploitation of shale gas reserves in the north of the country. In France, the Collectif 07 pressure group, which celebrated the retraction of energy giant Total’s exploration permits in the south of France in October 2011, remains alert to the appeal the company has filed against the decision. The pressure of lobbies and pressure groups does not stop there, with protestors occupying key positions in Brussels. What is clear is that fracking, or to give it its proper name, the ‘exploitation of unconventional gas’, will be a main talking point this year. Perhaps now is a good time to look back on Gasland and to join Fox in walking along the 50, 000 wells that have already been drilled in the USA and looking at the desolate landscapes caused by it.