The EU has received its strongest endorsement yet to push ahead and issue legislative proposals to control the extraction of shale gas: an official 3-month public consultation shows that “a large majority” of citizens believe Europe lacks adequate legislation on this front and that the EU should do something about it. The surprisingly strong support for enhanced EU oversight comes despite the fact that half the respondents come from Europe’s biggest shale gas promoter: Poland.
Photo: Strzeszewo shale gas well site of Lane Energy, Kashubia region, Pomerania, Poland (Copyright Food & Water Europe 2012)
The consultation, which the European Commission ran from December 2012 to March 2013, will feed into an EU framework “to enable safe and secure unconventional hydrocarbon extraction” due in the autumn. Whether this will be voluntary or binding remains open at this stage. The consultancy Bio Intelligence, which analysed the consultation’s results, unveiled its preliminary findings at a special stakeholder conference in Brussels on Friday 7 June.
It turns out that an enormous over 22,000 people responded – and about half of them live in Poland! The second biggest reply came from France (Europe’s biggest shale gas detractor), with some 3,300 responses. Next were Romania (3,200), Spain (1,300) and Germany (920). The UK, another vocal supporter, is somewhere in the middle with 340 responses while other countries are virtually off the map, including Estonia (4), which has considerable shale oil.
If a large majority of respondents agree there is a lack of adequate legislation at present, they also agree that this gap should be filled by Brussels: “doing nothing at EU level” was the least popular policy option going forward for most respondents. In contrast, “doing something” at EU level means improving health and environment safeguards – Brussels has no competence over national energy mixes. For this reason, the Commission’s environment department is leading development of the new policy framework.
“It is not for the Commission to decide whether shale gas should be exploited or not. The Treaty is quite clear: Member States are responsible for deciding on their energy mix. But they have to ensure that this is done in line with the environmental rules that apply, so as to ensure protection of the environment and human health.
The Commission’s role is to ensure that the rules of the game are clear and predictable for operators and authorities across Europe, while providing reassurance to the general public that appropriate climate and environmental safeguards are in place.”
EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik on 14 May 2013 at the European Economic Congress in Kattowice, Poland
At the next level of analysis, the consultation replies fall into three roughly equal categories: those who believe unconventional fossil fuels should be developed regardless, those who say only if proper health and environment standards are in place, and those who believe they should not be developed at all in Europe. Interestingly, this last category increases to a massive two-thirds if the responses are weighted by population (i.e. the disproportionate influence of Polish answers is removed).
Lack of transparency
Split by country, the strongest supporters are Poland, Slovenia (albeit with only 4 responses), Lithuania, Portugal and Hungary. In all these countries, over half of respondents backed some development of unconventional fossil fuels; in every other EU country at least 60% said they should not be developed at all in Europe. The least enthusiastic were France, Sweden, Austria, Ireland and Spain (excluding those countries with fewer than five responses).
There is also a clear split by type of organisation with – unsurprisingly – the strongest supporters to be found among companies (especially oil and gas firms!). About three-quarters of academic institutions and national authorities are also in favour however, albeit with most calling for appropriate safeguards. These figures are exactly reversed for NGOs and intergovernmental organisations. And scepticism abounds too among local and regional authorities, with nearly half saying they object to any kind of unconventional fossil fuel development.
Respondents list a lack of transparency and public information as the top challenge for the future, ahead even of improving legislation. Building public acceptance is third. NGOs and intergovernmental organisations naturally attach the greatest importance to these challenges, but about 60% of local and regional authorities also consider them significant (about twice the number of companies, academics and national authorities).
Whiff of geopolitics
Shale gas supporters tend to focus on its potential benefits, listing as their top three: decreasing energy imports, creating a stronger negotiating position vis-à-vis external (fossil fuel) suppliers and diversifying Europe’s energy mix. It seems citizens have caught a whiff of the geopolitics buzzing around energy policy: the more obviously beneficial “making energy cheaper for consumers” was only sixth on the perceived benefits list.
One final striking outcome of the Commission’s consultation is that very few people are prepared to change their minds about unconventional fossil fuels (about 70% say no, even if new measures were implemented). And so early on in the debate! The implication is that this is already an emotional issue. It could become yet another protracted debate like biofuels and indirect land-use change (ILUC), oil sands, or indeed genetically modified crops (GMOs). On none of these issues does Europe have a coherent policy.
Three big players emerge from this consultation for the future of shale gas in Europe: Poland and France, biggest proponent and detractor (and holders of the biggest suspected shale gas reserves in Europe), plus… regional and local authorities. The latter appear to be the swing vote also in the best position to take on the biggest challenge of all: building public acceptance. Whatever policy framework Brussels issues in the autumn, the battle has just begun.