Fracking: it’s now or never

Robbie Raeside // 31 May 2022

In many states across Europe, fracking is banned due to nimbyism (reluctance to be the site of fracking themselves) and pressure from green groups, as well as caution and concern about the potential seismological, environmental and health impacts. These concerns are legitimate but have been blown out of proportion, as evidence from the USA and recent UK government guidance notes that the risks are minimal, especially with proper and effective regulation. However, the anxiety about fracking appears to have become established in the minds of the European public, and many people are still focused on its potential negative impacts rather than on the positives.

Much of the opposition to fracking is based on a laudable commitment to reduce emissions and limit climate change. However, this commitment has thus far not secured the necessary move away from fossil fuels altogether but simply entailed a move away from their domestic production. Instead, fossil fuels are imported, often from suppliers using processes of extraction, refinement and transportation that are more carbon intensive than they would be in European countries.

This does not limit climate change: instead it exacerbates energy insecurity and dependence on authoritarian producer states. Indeed, in 2014 Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas led to increased European interest in fracking for gas: an EU report noted the potential energy security benefits of fracking by reducing dependence on Russian imports. In retrospect, this foreshadowed the current debates about Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and therefore the failure to act on the report represents a missed opportunity to galvanise support for widespread fracking, which could have lessened the impact of the war in Ukraine.

The current cost-of-living crisis is driven by the high price of energy caused by the war in Ukraine and the threat of cutting off the supply of Russian gas: in Europe gas prices have quadrupled in a year, while last year gas imports from Russia totalled 155 billion cubic metres (around 40 percent of EU consumption). This contrasts with the availability of vast European shale gas reserves estimated to be around 14 trillion cubic metres.

If Europe had already begun developing its fracking capacity, it would be less dependent on Russia and this crisis would be less severe. Instead, it is scrambling to find alternative gas supplies that may take years to fully develop. Having ignored all the warning signs, Europe has now come to its senses and has committed to wean itself off Russian gas, but surely fracking should be considered at least as part of the solution due to the abundance of shale gas across Europe?

The reality is that gas will be used in the energy mix for the foreseeable future until renewables and energy storage drastically improve, many more nuclear power stations are built, or hydrogen power becomes far more economical than it is at present. Indeed, while much has been made of the EU’s intention to wean itself off Russian gas, its strategy relies on diversifying, not replacing, gas sources. Therefore, an economical and widely available alternative to Russian gas is domestic fracking and yet few seem willing to recognise this.

Indeed, over half EU gas imports come from authoritarian states, and this figure is likely to increase as Europe seeks alternatives to Russian gas. This creates a whole host of new problems as dependence on authoritarian states has now been proven to be risky and unpredictable. Fracking would therefore reduce European dependence on authoritarian producer states and strengthen these countries’ energy security.

In addition, price instability is likely to increase as the drive for Net Zero intensifies as producer states seek to cash in on their reserves in a diminishing window of opportunity. While it may be too late for a sudden reversal of fracking bans to impact the current crisis, it would certainly help to stabilise price and supply in the future.

In conclusion, the fear of fracking in Europe has contributed to the severity of the cost-of-living crisis, cemented energy dependence on Russia and other authoritarian states, and obscured the potential energy security benefits of domestic shale gas. As Europe finally awakens to the dangers of Russian energy dependence it should consider the full range of policy options available to tackle the current crisis.

In the past the Commission has authorised reports and recommendations on the extent of gas reserves and safe ways to frack, further reports and consultations are needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the benefits of fracking and how to mitigate the risks.

Fracking should be seriously considered as a short-term stopgap that would help to diversify gas supply and manage the effects of the war in Ukraine and future supply and price pressures while allowing for investment in renewable, nuclear and hydrogen power that will secure true energy security.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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