Fracking is “Fracturing” the German Government Coalition

By Geert DeCock, Food & Water Watch Director of EU Affairs

Andy Gheorghiu, a German grassroots activist.

Andy Gheorghiu, a German grassroots activist.

In early April, the German Environment Minister proposed new rules on fracking. One of the most eye-catching elements was the decision to ban fracking for shale gas and coal bed methane above 3,000 meters of depth. However, the minister also proposed some research projects on fracking, which would need to be approved by an expert panel and closely monitored. Fracking activities in Germany’s tight sand formations would also be able to proceed.

On July 3, the Bundestag – the German Parliament – was scheduled to have an important vote on the so-called “Fracking Law.” However, as the vote was edging nearer, the governing coalition of the German federal government decided to delay the referendum.

We gave a call to Andy Gheorghiu, a German grassroots activist who is deeply engaged against fracking, to explain the situation.

Q: The German Environment Minister proposed detailed rules on fracking on April 1 of this year. Why has the German Parliament not been able to make a decision on this matter? What is still so controversial?

A: The main stumbling block remains the role of the expert panel and its decisions on fracking research projects. Under the minister’s proposals, the oil and gas industry would be allowed to start demonstration projects in shale and coal bed formations – only for the purpose of scientific data-gathering, not for commercial gain – under certain conditions. The companies involved would not be allowed to frack above 3,000 meters of depth and fracking would only happen with a fluid mixture that has been classified as non-hazardous. These restrictions are intended to make sure that the impacts of fracking on groundwater are limited, but German anti-fracking groups have serious questions about the scientific evidence behind the 3,000 meters of depth requirement and how this would resolve the water-related impacts of fracking.

Q: A lot of the European discussions about fracking focus on shale gas. However, the German discussions also include a focus on tight gas, and unconventional oil and gas resources in tight sandstone formations. How does that influence the debate in Germany? 

A: The industry and some politicians try to create the illusion that there is no real difference between the past experiences of conventional oil and gas wells, and the newer combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking. By blurring the lines between the old “conventional” wells and the new “unconventional” wells, industry tries to distance itself from the growing body of evidence about the negative environmental and health impacts of shale gas, tight gas and light tight oil in the United States. With concepts like “conventional fracking,” the industry is attempting to confuse public opinion and continue with business as usual. And Big Oil and Gas has been successful to some extent: While shale gas development shall be on hold at least for a couple of years (except for some demonstration projects), tight gas and oil exploration will be allowed to proceed.

I should add that groups advocating for a ban on fracking have been able to make sure that there are a number of legislative changes that will make it harder for tight gas to develop in Germany. For instance, there will be a mandatory environmental impact assessment for every tight gas project. And fracking will be banned in nature protection zones, drinking water zones and catchment areas of natural lakes or dams used for public water supply.

Q: Who are the main oil and gas players that want to start fracking in Germany?

A: The two main companies interested in developing oil and gas in Germany are ExxonMobil Germany and Wintershall. Exxon has been active in oil and gas activities in Germany and they would very much like to continue. Wintershall is another major oil and natural gas producer in Germany and is part of the German-based chemicals company BASF.

Q: Germany has set ambitious long-term targets to decarbonize its power sector, moving away from fossil fuels and transitioning to a power system based on renewables and energy efficiency. May fracking nonetheless be a bridge tool into a post fossil era?

It is clear that unconventional oil and gas have no role to play in the German plans for an “Energiewende,” or Energy Transition. For example, Germany has set a target that renewables will meet 30 percent of Germany’s gross final energy consumption by 2030. We are well on our way to meeting that goal. In sharp contrast, the contribution of shale gas is negligible. Government estimates of Germany’s shale gas resources clearly show that – even under the unlikely assumption that fracking is given the green light – shale gas only accounts for just over a decade of German consumption of natural gas. And that it would take 48,000 wells in area of 9,300 square kilometers to get it out of the ground. By the time such a nightmare scenario would develop, Germany will be long powered by renewables!

This is why German and many other groups called in their 2013 Korbach resolution for “a move away from fossil energy sources, a development of renewable energies and an improvement of energy efficiency.” Climate change requires us to make this shift as soon as possible … investing for multiple decades in unburnable carbon like shale or tight gas simply does not make sense.

Want to help Germany and the rest of the world put a stop to fracking? Join the Global Frackdown to Paris! Learn more and sign the letter.

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