Stepping on the Gas: New Drilling Technologies Shake Up Global Market
Part 4: Is Drilling a Threat to Idyllic Landscape?
Workers in orange overalls are puttering around with the drill pipes. The men are engineers with a Scottish specialty company Exxon hired to sink the well, as the work is referred to in the industry. The teams work day and night. Floodlights keep the Lünne 1 site bathed in bright light.
"It looks like a football field here," says Markus Rolink. He and his wife and their three children live only a field away from the drilling site. The 37-year-old teacher at a special needs school, sporting an earring and a five-day beard, says that he hadn't planned to become politically involved again, ever since campaigning for the Green Party as a university student. But he changed his mind when he heard about the drilling plans.
Rolink is worried that this idyllic rural landscape could soon be destroyed, especially when trucks carrying chemicals start rumbling down the road to the drill site. He is also concerned about the possibility of future accidents. "Then we'll have plenty of energy, but no water," he says sarcastically.
'Who Will Want to Live Here Anymore?'
Rolink and his neighbors have joined forces and formed the Schönes Lünne (Beautiful Lünne) initiative. About 80 Lünne residents have come together for an evening meeting at a local farm, where they are sitting on wooden benches in a barn heated with a woodstove. They are watching a TV report about fracking in the United States that aired on German public broadcaster ARD. The film portrays people who could no longer sell their houses, polluted water and elevated cancer rates.
"Who will want to live here anymore?" a woman asks, breaking the silence after the film ends. A farmer says she is worried about her crops and wants to know what will happen if the fracking fluid leaks into the topsoil. "Who will liable?" The more the local residents discuss the issue, the more anxious and determined to resist gas drilling they become. "We have to think about ways to fight this," says one man. "All I can say is: Gorleben." He's referring to the controversial experimental storage site for nuclear waste in Germany.
Opposition to the gas industry's plans is taking shape, and not just in the Emsland region. In the neighboring state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where drilling companies are perforating coal seams to search for gas, citizens are organizing against the efforts. Many have seen "Gasland," the film by US director Josh Fox, who uses a suggestive style similar to that of filmmaker Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11") in his indictment of the industry.
In the most powerful scene in the film, Fox shows a man using a lighter to set the water coming from a faucet on fire. Fox claims that fracking has contaminated groundwater with toxic gas. It's a controversial charge, with US authorities insisting that the drilling cannot be blamed, at least not in this case. But despite its contradictions, Fox has made an impact with such images. He has alarmed citizens -- and the industry, now that "Gasland" was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Elixir Petroleum's Ross calls the nomination incomprehensible and says that the film really belongs in the comedy category. Energy in Depth, an industry association, even warned against awarding the Oscar to a film filled with such "mistakes, inconsistencies and lies."
'We Have to Answer Questions'
It's up to the industry to take the initiative and explain the technology, says Bruno Courme, managing director of Gas Shales Europe, a subsidiary of French energy conglomerate Total. "We have to answer questions," he says. And there are many of them.
One is about the ingredients of the fracking fluid that's injected into the rock. Even more important: How contaminated is the sludge that shoots back up to the surface? And how is it properly disposed of? The wastewater contains large amounts of salt, and it often contains benzene, xylene and toluene, all highly toxic substances that could contaminate groundwater.
The gas industry's engineers insist that contact with groundwater is highly unlikely, because the layers of rock containing the gas are so much deeper. But they do admit to other potential weak points, for instance, when the steel pipes in the borehole are not properly cemented together. The US environmental authorities have documented a number of such accidents, in which wastewater has harmed the environment.
Not everything is going swimmingly in the German gas production industry, either. In Söhlingen, where Exxon is producing natural gas, wastewater containing toxic chemicals was leaked from the site about three years ago. Citizens' initiatives have since demanded that the authorities tighten their inspection regimens. Many regulations of Germany's outdated mining law are not relevant to the new technologies.
Green Party members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, want to change this. "Citizens need to be more involved," says Oliver Krischer, the party's energy policy expert. The North Rhine-Westphalia state government is also pushing for a revision of the law and plans to launch an initiative in the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber that represents Germany's states.
One way or another, it will take years before the data from the exploratory drilling have been analyzed and producers have decided whether the German sites are worth exploiting. Only one thing is clear, namely that gas's share of the energy mix worldwide will keep on growing and the fuel will become more important, which will also have consequences for the gas supply in Germany. "Precisely this circumstance opens up new possibilities," says RWE executive board member Leonhard Birnbaum.
In all likelihood, gas-fired power plants will become increasingly common, replacing old coal plants. They would be the ideal supplement to a fluctuating flow of energy from renewable sources. Gas also offers new prospects as a fuel. Logistics companies in the United States are already thinking about converting their fleets to natural gas. The old postulate that natural gas is too valuable to burn is no longer true.
"A lot of things that didn't make much sense a few years ago" says Ruhrgas CEO Schäfer, now have to be "reevaluated." Apparently, this also holds true for the national energy plan the German government unveiled last fall. Natural gas plays only a secondary role in the document, because the experts had based their assumptions on higher prices and smaller reserves.
In the end, issues of geology are probably not as likely to hold up the gas revolution. The biggest obstacle, says London antitrust expert Alan Riley, lies in the question of whether society will accept unconventional drilling for natural gas --- and, of course, whether the gas price will decouple itself from the oil price in the long term.
Ruhrgas CEO Schäfer, at any rate, is convinced that the trend "is unstoppable, especially given the current price developments in the oil markets."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: New Drilling Technologies Shake Up Global Market
- Part 2: Will Shift to Natural Gas Undermind Renewable Energies?
- Part 3: Bad News for Russia
- Part 4: Is Drilling a Threat to Idyllic Landscape?
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