What’s the future for fracking?

Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to put a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico further intensifies the current debate about hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process by which much of the unconventional gas is being exploited in the US.

The process has been at the centre of the most recent argument between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists since Gasland was released earlier this year, highlighting the effect of some of the chemicals used in extraction. But the argument has gathered pace in the last few days, not least because of the announcement by Ken Salazar (pictured) that he would consider tightening up rules so that companies have to disclose what chemicals are being used to extract the gas.

This was met by fierce resistance by Republican congressman Doc Hastings, who has written a letter to Salazar denouncing the decision even to consider such a policy change. Hastings writes:

The department’s consideration of requiring duplicative and burdensome disclosures – above and beyond the significant efforts already taken at state level – raises the very real possibility of a further crippling of federal land communities and the jobs of tens of thousands of Americans that are dependent on the repsonsible development of those lands.

It’s a strong reaction, given the fact that this is just a policy consideration at the moment. And as Salazar said on Tuesday, he is a supporter of extracting natural gas:

From our point of view, [the] bottom line is that there is a bright future with respect to natural gas here in America.

But it is a sign that gas lobbyists and supportive politicians are getting their repostes in quickly. And well they might, given the way things are turning against them on a state level.

On Monday night the New York State Assembly passed a six-month moratorium on fracking throughout the state, aimed particularly at the Marcellus field in the north. Locals agree that the bill was largely symbolic, as the state’s environmental conservation department is already reviewing the impact of drilling in the Marcellus field. But the symbolism is significant – policymakers were sending a message to the oil and gas industry about their intentions.

This will be a diffficult balance for politicians on a local and national level – between environmental concerns and security of supply. And it is a debate that is making its way to European shores.

The Ecologist carried a piece this week that highlighted the nascent unconventional gas market in Europe, focusing particularly on Poland and its estimated 1.4 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. The wording of the piece gave a hint of the argument to come, should this market expand at anything like the rate seen in the US:

Despite growing evidence from the US of a raft of negative environmental and social consequences of drilling for natural gas using the controversial hydraulic fracturing process, European energy companies are scrambling to secure licenses to roll out extraction projects this side of the Atlantic.

But the temptation to move quickly to exploit unconventional gas and mitigate Europe’s reliance on supply from Russia is obvious – even the Russians admit this is a serious concern. As Konstantin Simonov, the head of the Russian National Energy Security Fund, told delegates at the Shale Gas World Conference recently:

The EU will be clutching at straws and try to use anything that bears even a minimum resemblance to a method of improving its energy security.

European governments might like to consider their positions on fracking sooner rather than later. It is worth noting that for all the heat behind the US debate, the policy under question is pretty tame – merely a requirement that companies disclose the chemicals they use. And as fellow blogger and gas analyst Nick Grealy comments, this could be a good thing for the companies involved:

When people see that it is 99.87 per cent water or sand they will think, ‘That doesn’t sound so awful.’”

The fact is that having gone this far and triggered an almighty shale boom, the US government is unlikely to bring in any serious curb on natural gas extraction. As Grealy says: “They are not going to put the genie back in the bottle. No way.”

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