Do you feel the European Commission is approaching the shale gas opportunity in the right way?

I’m afraid that in certain areas the European Commission, in particular DG Environment, excessively emphasizes the negative impact of shale gas extraction on the environment. It is also likely that, without taking into account the voice of shale gas supporters, the Commission will soon announce that the tightening of European regulations on shale gas is necessary. Until the 25th of March, the European Commission held public consultations; everyone could fill out a survey giving their view on shale gas: its impact on the environment, opportunities and threats. I must admit that from the very beginning, the wording of the questions caused doubts. The questions were biased and were suggesting that there are generally negative consequences of the exploitation of shale gas. What made this consultation even more controversial were the results published by the European Commission. Even though more than 60% of respondents were in favour of shale gas exploration in Europe, the European Commission applied a controversial weighting system based on the Member States population, which changed the actual results. The weighing system shaped the Commission’s final report which presented negative attitude of citizens towards shale gas. Several MEPs, mostly Polish, as we were the biggest group of respondents, found the weighting measures biased and the presented results unacceptable.

Speaking of the Commission’s attitude I would also like to underline that there has already been 46 wells drilled in Poland. Unfortunately, the experience learnt from developing these wells, as well as the results of the environmental analysis were never taken into consideration by the European Commission. I have tried to point this out to them with a parliamentary question, but with no result.

The European Parliament’s attitude towards shale gas is also rather cautious. According to a recent vote, any future exploration and exploitation of all nonconventional hydrocarbons, including shale gas and oil, as well as coal gas, should be subject to a mandatory environmental impact assessment. The result of the vote was tight. A certain coalition including Polish, British and German MEPs was created. These MEPs explicitly criticized the outcome of the EIA vote. In our opinion, if the new environmental regulations will come into effect, especially the mandatory assessment at the stage of exploration, there will be a significant delay in the development of shale gas industry in the EU member states. It is important to notice though that the positions within the Parliament are polarised. When it comes to shale gas the MEPs are divided Until now the final outcome was usually in favour of the development of shale gas industry in Europe. However, the last vote on the EIA breaks this trend.

Many observers believe there has been too much emphasis by the EU on the risks and not enough on the potential benefits of shale gas – would you agree? Why do you feel this has been the case? What can be done about it?

Countries which are not as dependent on coal and gas imports, formed a strong group blocking the development of shale gas exploitation. This group mainly concentrates on unconventional fossil fuels extraction process and its negative impact on the environment. In my opinion, as the European Union, we should look at this problem collectively, from a geopolitical perspective of all the EU member states, with regard to their energy security. Some states do not need to further diversify their energy mix as they are rich in other resources such as water (e.g. Sweden) or a developed nuclear energy sector (e.g. France). Other countries, including Poland, are forced to find ways to diversify their energy market, if only for the reason that the development of coal industry is limited by the EU regulations. At the same time, while lacking sufficient reserves of conventional natural gas or nuclear power, Poland is doomed with high energy prices and relies on the import of gas which is not only challenging economically, but also geopolitically. The only way to change this is by demonstrating that shale gas technologies are harmless to the environment and public health, and consequently: can be developed. What is more, it should be underlined that the shale gas production process is fully transparent, inter alia since the detailed lists of chemicals and the amounts used in fracking were made public. I believe that information is crucial in the discussion on shale gas. In order for the projects to be accepted by the general public, information about potential risks and benefits of shale gas extraction should be publicly available.

What policy would you recommend the EU follow? 

Currently EU policy leans towards focusing primarily on the environmental aspects of shale gas production. Of course this is a matter of great importance, but research shows that the extraction technology can be harmless to the environment, at the same time providing a significant benefit, by leading to a substantial reduction of greenhouse gases emissions. The introduction of environmental procedures to the EU and then to national legislation is extremely important. It is, however, worth noticing that the extraction of shale gas is already regulated by the internal, national environmental standards and procedures. Moreover, in the face of climate change, it is essential that we focus on the diversification of our energy mix and implementation of regulations designed to support the development of energy from unconventional resources, including fossil fuels, while maintaining the highest safety standards. I would also like to once more underline how important it is for objective, easily understood information to be widely spread amongst citizens. What builds up the distrust and fear among people is the lack of knowledge or sometimes disinformation that is easily accessible in the Internet. New projects within the extractive industry, especially in their exploration phase, do not show direct benefits. It is essential that the public is made aware of the future advantages of shale gas as well as having the clear image of the risks it might bring.

What do you see as the main benefits for Europe in developing its shale gas resources?

I see many potential benefits from the development of the shale gas industry. The most important one is the diversification of the energy mix within the EU. As already mentioned many EU countries, including Poland, are largely dependent on coal and imported natural gas, what has a negative impact on the geopolitical situation of Europe, leading to high energy prices. An increase in the supply of unconventional energy resources should, following the example of the United States, lead to lower energy prices and, consequently, to a higher competitiveness of the European economy on the global market.
It should also be noted that solely on the basis of environmental needs we may act in favour of shale gas, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions by replacing coal powered plants with the gas powered ones.

Could shale gas help meet EU emission targets by reducing coal use?

The world’s biggest emitters of CO2 are China and the United States, these are the countries which at the same time oppose to the targets of CO2 reductions. However, their policies are worth looking into. A significant energy shift from coal to the national shale gas reserves, which took place in the United States, has led to a substantial reduction of their CO2 emissions in recent years. This means that if we take into consideration the reduction of CO2 emissions, the energy policy of the United States does the job. We could follow the same scenario in Europe, as our CO2 emissions could be substantially reduced by the development of shale gas.

What can we do in Europe to provide cheaper fuel to our industry, which is a major competitive disadvantage with North America where energy prices are far lower?

With the increase in production of any product, its price decreases. In the case of starting the production of shale gas in Europe, the share of gas in the energy mix would increase, what would probably lead to a price reduction. In the United States, development of shale gas industry has contributed to a significant decline of gas prices, at the same time increasing the American GDP of an additional 1%. Moreover, the share of gas used in electricity production within the American market increased from 13% to 25% between 1993 and 2011, and is still recording an upward trend. At the same time, the use of coal fell from 53% to 42%. Such changes in the energy-mix contributed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Could shale gas help achieve the EU’s re-industrialization target?

As I’ve already mentioned, shale gas has significantly contributed to the decline of gas prices in the United States. This trend could be achieved in Europe, which would increase the competitiveness of energy-intensive industries, as well as industry sectors which use natural gas in their production process. Paradoxically, this can have a positive impact on global emissions due to minimizing the risk of the phenomena called “carbon leakage.”
Moreover, taking into account the ETS, and the fact that electricity produced from natural gas makes half of the CO2 emissions of electricity produced from coal, therefore, increasing the use of gas can positively impact the European market which is for the time being “overwhelmed” by high energy prices. On the other hand, refusing the opportunity to exploit shale gas in Europe could lead to a further loss of the EU competitiveness. Taking into consideration the difficult economic situation we are already facing, we cannot afford this to happen.

What are the biggest risks associated with shale gas development in your opinion?

I must refer once more to the importance of information that is spread across. A lot of the times the risks are excessively underlined, a lot of the times the information is subjective or misinterpreted. The most widely discussed risk among opponents of shale gas extraction is the fear of groundwater pollution. Experiences, particularly of the U.S., have shown that in exploitation missions conducted in accordance with the latest safety standards no water pollution has been recorded.
But ordinary people don’t look into the technical reports. They usually listen to the general opinion or find their information online, what like I said sometimes is not accurate.

In order to get familiar with the shale gas production technology and its impact on the environment, I visited exploitation sites operating in the United States. What caught my attention was a surprisingly small area that is occupied by the well and used for drilling during the exploitation phase. Furthermore, the areas where the extraction was already carried out are managed in such way to integrate the site into the pre-existing natural environment.

However, there is no doubt that the initial drilling and exploration can be particularly challenging, when it is carried out within a short distance from human settlements. In the last year’s European Parliament’s resolution (the report prepared by me),we indicated that the risks associated with shale gas extraction should be reduced by the application of preventive measures, such as proper planning, testing, environmental monitoring, as well as the use of the newest and best available technologies throughout the whole process.