There is no need for more environmental legislation in the case of shale gas exploration, at least until it reaches commercial scale, says a new study published by the European commission.
The activities relating to exploration of shale gas are already subject to EU and national laws and regulations, says the report, carried out for the European commission by Belgian law firm Philippe & Partners.
Water protection issues, for instance, which have been raised as an issue by shale gas detractors, are already covered by EU legislation under the Water Framework Directive, the Groundwater Directive and the Mining Waste Directive. Meanwhile, the use of chemicals is covered by the REACH regulation, the study says.
“It is a new technology and we do not have a specific legislation on shale gas, because it is so new,” said Marlene Holzner, European commission spokesperson on energy.
“So the study only says that the existing regulations are applicable for shale gas, that the tool is there and has only to be applied,” she told EurActiv, adding that the study was carried out only in four countries – Poland, France, Germany and Sweden. It was released on 27 January.
The law firm said shale gas activities were too small at the moment to justify specific legislation. “Neither on the European level nor on the national level have we noticed significant gaps in the current legislative framework, when it comes to regulating the current level of shale gas activities,” the study says.
This is, however, not a reason for “complacency”, the study says, since the assessment refers only to the current scale of operations in Europe. Shale gas exploitation on a commercial scale would involve bigger maneuvers, it adds.
Europe has less experience in exploring shale gas formations as a new source of natural gas and no commercial scale exploitations have taken place yet, but this “is expected in a few years’ time”, the report says.
Shale gas is an unconventional source of natural gas and studies show different results on how safe the two main methods of extracting it from rock formations.
One is the horizontal drilling in various regions of the rock, which is needed to capture the gas pockets. The other, hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ – involves a high-pressure injunction of fluids usually mixed with chemicals into shale rock. Both of them require seismic and drilling permits, as well as large amounts of chemicals and water.
Only after conducting consecutive tests for drilling and fracturing does a project reach the stage of planning and acquiring the needed pipeline, followed by the decision to bring the extraction to a commercial scale.
In a few years’ time, investors might find themselves in need of making a decision on the commercial development of their shale gas projects, a situation which is not covered by the EU study published on 27 January.
Poland, which aims to shrug off its dependency on Russian gas, is planning to begin commercial shale gas production from 2014, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said last year. Most of the projects are currently at the phase of seismic surveys and some projects already have entered the drilling phase, which is expected to intensify after 2014.
The natural gas trapped in shale rock in Poland could provide the country with enough fuel to last for 300 years, the US Department of Energy said last year.
However, not everyone is willing to allow drilling operations on their land, despite the economic potential. At the beginning of January, thousands of Bulgarians protested against exploration for shale gas over fears it could poison underground water, trigger earthquakes and pose serious public health hazards.
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