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World Energy: From the «Shale Revolution» to Healthy Pragmatism? (I)

17-06-2013, 15:24

The latest council meeting of the European Union, which took place recently in Brussels, was marked by an ambitious statement from EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger.In an interview with the Parisian business newspaper Les Échos, he urged EU member countries not to block programs for development of shale gas fields in Europe. «We need to be open to such projects and allow those countries who wish to do so, such as Great Britain or Poland, to develop pilot projects on the basis of which we can make an assessment for Europe in general», stated Oettinger. [1] 

Besides Great Britain and Poland, other European countries which plan to develop technologies for extraction of shale gas include Romania, Hungary and Spain. On the other hand, in France and Bulgaria this extraction method is officially prohibited. 

The shale gas situation, as well as Europe's energy security situation as a whole, is a complex and multidimensional issue. At almost the same time as Günther Oettinger's interview with Les Échos, an open letter from the EU's leading energy companies appeared in the French media. Among these are the French company GDF Suez, the German companies E.On and RWE, the Italian company ENI and the Spanish companies Iberdrola and GasNatural Fenosa. Representatives of these companies essentially accused the European Commission of conducting unsound policy in the energy field as a whole. 

The position of the European energy giants was explained by the general director of GDF Suez, Gerard Mestrallet, in an interview with the Parisian newspaper Le Monde. He emphasized that the companies are not «asking for subsidies», but demand «clarity, stable and consistent rules in Europe and definition of goals up to 2030». European leaders «should know that the current energy policy is leading to collapse,» says Mestrallet. «The result is that Europe is destroying part of its energy industry. It is urgent that this policy, its ends and its means be redefined». In the opinion of the general director of GDF Suez, the Old World has not been able to achieve concrete results in any of the three items on its energy agenda: fighting climate change, increasing competitiveness and maintaining the security of fuel supplies. Furthermore, there is now a trend toward the «fragmentation of Europe with regard to energy». [2]

The leading European companies approach the problem of extracting shale gas critically, seeing in it an indirect ecological threat for the entire continent. The development of shale gas fields in North America led to a drastic breakdown of the energy system in Europe: the U.S. placed its bets on shale gas, which caused prices in the coal industry to drop; Europeans rushed to buy up the cheap coal, and Europe literally started «smoking». 

And the Americans themselves, after trying to become pioneers in shale gas extraction, are still cautious in evaluating prospects. Test drilling caused massive protests in the U.S., as the method of hydraulically fragmenting the shale (fracking) used in such cases is hazardous to groundwater and the atmosphere. In addition, leading companies and analytical institutes vary widely in their evaluations of the prospects of shale gas extraction in the U.S., which does not justify affirmations of a «shale revolution» either. For example, while the company East European Gas Analysis predicts annual production volumes of over 180 billion cubic meters per year by 2015, the International Energy Agency predicts 150 billion cubic meters per year, and not by 2015, but by 2030.

Nevertheless, proponents of shale gas in Europe are hurrying to follow America's path. Even Günther Oettinger, in an interview with Die Welt, thought it proper to avoid excessive haste in this area. He promised on behalf of the European Commission to work out unified rules for the extraction of shale gas and investigate «environmental conservation issues.» Of course, he is still convinced that Germany should not «miss its chance» to extract shale gas. [3]

Be that as it may, in Oettinger's homeland, Germany, the decision on the issue of shale gas has been postponed until after the elections to the Bundestag on September 22, 2013. Ecology is too sensitive a topic for German voters.

But in neighboring Poland the development of shale gas is considered to have literally geopolitical significance; the Poles plan to achieve freedom from «gas dependency on Russia» this way. Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an expert from the Polish Institute of Social Sciences who also works at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, insists that «Gazprom is an instrument of the Kremlin's foreign policy» and actively urges the Polish government, for example, to «do everything it can» to prevent the construction of the North Stream gas pipeline, which in fact would serve the interests of Europe's energy security. Certain circles in Poland are acting in close union with the Americans.

For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasizes that efforts toward «opening Central Asia for the world economy» (despite interference created by Russia) is an «extremely important» component of Washington's Eurasian strategy. Central Asia is understood here as an alternative source of energy supplies as opposed to Russia. This strategy is meant to prevent not only Russia, but the European Union from becoming an independent pole of influence in world energy, taking into consideration that, according to the estimates of the U.S. Department of Energy, the world demand for energy resources will increase by over 50% by 2015 as compared to the mid-1990s. The renowned American expert Robert Herbert painted the role of energy resources in U.S. foreign policy even more frankly: «Oil and financial assets are the two main topics that have never been openly and publicly discussed in the U.S. These important issues were farmed out to various masters of behind-the-scenes political warfare, and now many of them are already counting their profits.» [4]

However, even in the U.S. the doctrine of the «shale revolution» has met with serious problems. Early this year the French oil and gas company Total announced a suspension of the development of shale gas fields in the U.S. due to low profitability. In particular, the concern took «heavy financial losses in Texas.» Therefore, the leadership of Total decided to abandon the development of the U.S. gas fields in question and focus its efforts on traditional gas extraction. [5]

A similar situation is taking shape in other areas of the «world shale revolution» as well. Development of Polish gas fields have already been abandoned by the domestic state company Lotos, American Exxon Mobil and Canadian Talisman Energy. The latter in particular stated frankly that profitable deposits of shale gas were simply not found. And at the first Mozambique gas summit, which took place in March in Maputo, the president of the Portuguese oil and gas holding Grupo Galp Energia, Manuel Ferreira de Oliveira, made an eloquent speech urging not to exaggerate the threat from shale gas to traditional energy sources. He admitted that «shale gas has undoubtedly already become a world energy source», but emphasized that «in the most optimistic forecasts», the reserves of shale gas are sufficient, for the most part, only to compete with coal in the countries in which it is produced. 

It is significant that, despite the ardent appeals of Eurocommissioner Oettinger, European Council members are still cautious, which also confirms the speculative character of many declarations about the «world shale revolution» on Europe's doorstep. Diplomatic sources in Brussels indicate that talk about the development of a common approach to the use of shale gas is premature. «The EU does not have such potential. In order to increase our competitiveness, we need a different strategy made up of several components... There is shale gas in the EU. But deciding the makeup of energy sources is in the jurisdiction of the national authorities. Those who want to try can do so. For some EU countries it could become part of their list of energy sources,» says an anonymous source in Brussels. In addition, according to the forecasts of the International Energy Agency, production of non-traditional gas in Europe will be no greater than 15 billion cubic meters by 2030.

The chairman of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, publicly admits that by 2035 the European Union will be dependent on imported oil and gas for 80% of its requirements. Experts at the International Energy Agency confirm that demand for gas in Europe will increase by 1.5% per year until 2030. However, this situation should not justify ill-considered and hasty actions. The most important issue is that of the stability and reliability of existing energy supply routes, and it should be resolved with the participation of all interested parties, including Russia.

(To be continued)

[1] Les Échos, 21.05.2013

[2] Le Monde, 21.05.2013

[3] Die Welt, 21.05.2013

[4] The New York Times, 21.04.2003

[5] Le Monde, 10.01.2013


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