Archive for September, 2013


Shale gas debate finally kicks off in the Netherlands

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

Fifteen years after the first economical shale fracture in the United States, the debate on shale gas extraction has finally reached full speed after the publication, in August 2013, of a research report by three consultancy firms lead by Witteveen + Bos, on the potential risks and consequences of shale gas and coal seam gas extraction in the Netherlands. In the report for the Dutch government, the researchers reviewed the existing literature on the impact of shale gas extraction and “translated” the findings to the Dutch situation. Most of the information on the impact of shale gas extraction is from experiences in the US and the UK. The comprehensive report focuses on all possible consequences, such as water use, underground impact on the soil, methane emissions and the impact on the carbon footprint, pollution of the environment (including groundwater) by fracturing fluid and flowback water, noise and light pollution from installations, flaring, safety issues, earthquakes and subsidence. Generally, the report concludes that most if not all of these risks can be managed by setting strict permit conditions. Unlike in the US, the Dutch shale gas reserves are at great depth, well below ground water aquifers, and, also unlike in the US, in the Netherlands there already exists an extensive regulatory system that sets strict rules. Flowback water, for instance, cannot be stored in open basins, but has to be stored in closed tanks that are stored on watertight floors as a consequence of EU waste water law. Although the report looks sufficiently overarching and detailed, it also gained criticism. It was for instance criticized for its selected use of sources. Professor Jan Rotmans, in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (29 August 2013) stated that the report heavily relied on data coming from the industry (75% of the data used is from industry related sources), rather than on data from more independent sources. In addition, the lack of data is usually interpreted in a ‘positive’ way, i.e., concluding that a certain impact is not problematic, while in fact we do not know because of lacking data. Applying the precautionary principle would have led to the opposite conclusion in such a situation! Unfortunately, the Minister decided to grant the research project to a consortium of three private companies, one of which is Fugro, which states on its website: ‘Fugro’s activities (…) are primarily aimed at the: oil and gas industry, construction industry, mining sector’. On such a sensitive issue, it would have been better for the Minister to grant the project to a consortium of universities rather than of private businesses with ties to the shale gas industry, or at least have a university team lead the consortium. Another problematic feature of the report is that it does not focus on specific local conditions. This is a bit strange because a) the government selected the three locations on which exploratory drillings are to take place long ago (2010), and b) the report argues that local zoning requirements are needed to protect specific sites, such as Natura 2000 sites (protected areas under the EU’s nature conservation laws) and groundwater protection areas (in use for drinking water supply), and probably also (although not specifically mentioned in the report) other types of protected areas, such as water storage areas, silence areas, and national parks. The report also suggests to protect buffer zones around such protected areas, without detailing how big these have to be. Given the fact that populated areas probably have to be avoided as well, it would have been interesting to test what drilling options remain. By leaving a lot of issues to the local level, authorities resisting shale gas extraction have an immense opportunity to block drilling, even in case the national authorities granted concessions. We already see developments going into this direction: a majority of politicians of the province of Noord-Brabant in which two of the designated exploration locations are located, have announced to prohibit shale gas exploration in their province in the Provincial Environment Ordinance. It is clear from the report that shale gas extraction is only acceptable under strict legal conditions. The report does, therefore, constantly refer to laws and regulations that are or should be in place to minimize the negative impact of fracking. A full assessment of current laws is lacking, though. Current Dutch mining legislation does not explicitly deal with fracking, simply because it predates the large scale use of this technology. An earlier EU investigation of existing environmental laws, by a consortium that, interestingly enough, also included Witteveen + Bos, found many gaps and shortcomings. It is unlikely that all of these do not exist in the Netherlands. The report, furthermore, relies on law in the books rather than on the law in action. Although there are supervising authorities, both on the implementation of mining legislation and environmental legislation, much depends on the way the various authorities involved deal with their decision-making and monitoring and enforcement powers. The debate will not be over for a while. This is a good thing. Before investing billions of euros into new infrastructure to extract fossil energy resources, it is worthwhile to rethink whether such investments perhaps are more appropriate in the dwindling Dutch renewable energy sector. According to the 2013 Renewable Energy Progress Report, the Netherlands is on a snail ride, moving from a 2,4% share in 2005, to a 3,8 share of renewable energy sources in the total energy consumption in 2010. Compare this to some of nearby countries, such as Germany (11%), France (13.5%), and Denmark (22.2%)… In 2012, the share went up to 4,7%. In this pace, it is highly unlikely that the Netherlands will meet its target for 2020 of 16%… Investing in shale gas extraction will not speed up this process.

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