Last Wednesday, German government approved a draft of a law allowing for the extraction of shale gas and oil using the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing. However, Angela Merkel’s Cabinet has formulated a series of conditions limiting the exploitation of unconventional deposits.
Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD), explained at a press conference that a total ban on exploration and production of shale gas – as requested by the party organizations and environmentalists – would be impossible for constitutional reasons. She explained that in Germany imposing a total ban on a given technology is not legally possible.
Ms Hendricks – an SPD politician – is a strong opponent of fracking as she believes that shale gas is unnecessary in Germany where it will be possible to fully replace nuclear energy with renewable energy sources by the year 2022.
At present, shale gas – as well as tight gas currently explored in Lower Saxony – can only be explored from depths greater than 3,000 metres. When the new law comes into force – probably in 2016 as it still needs to be approved by Parliament – will impose an outright ban on fracking for shale gas in the next few years but it will allow scientific test drilling to assess the risks and environmental impact at depths shallower than 3,000 metres.
The law could allow commercial shale gas fracking in exceptional cases from 2019 but only after successful test drilling and the approval of a special committee.
Criticized by some anti-fracking campaigners, Barbara Hendricks said that the government does not intend to lift the current ban on shale extraction.
“Just the opposite: plenty of things that were possible before, are now forbidden”, she said at a press conference Wednesday.
“Whether or not this technology will someday be environmentally friendly, remains to be seen. It is possible to doubt whether Germany even needs it,” she wrote in a letter to SPD and CDU lawmakers. “However, it’s not our goal to permanently ban a new technology. Instead, our task is to eliminate the possibility of it endangering the health, lives, and the environment.”
The draft law was to be adopted by the government a week earlier, but it was removed from the agenda after protests from CDU politicians, demanding improvements and a more liberal approach to shale gas.
The Christian Democrats pushed through certain alterations to the law such as the clause to set up a committee of experts, which would have the power to issue permits for commercial shale gas production after 2018, if test drilling shows that such exploration may be profitable.
Barbara Hendricks has already announced that she will fight for the clause to be removed. In her view, such a panel could be influenced to always rule in favour of energy companies.
The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has welcomed the lack of a total ban on fracking while criticizing the other aspect of the draft bill.
“It’s a positive signal that extraction of shale gas in Germany is not completely out of the question. However, the requirements for extracting the gas are completely exaggerated,” said the association’s general manager Markus Kerber, adding that fracking could be an important point in ensuring energy security.
According to a pro-shale lobby group, Shale Gas Europe, Germany has 2.3 trillion cubic metres of estimated domestic shale gas reserves, but the country – which is the economic powerhouse of Europe – relies in 40 per cent on imports of Russian gas.
Image: Angela Merkel with Barbara Hendricks, author: Martin Rulsch
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