Un-Natural Gas Fracking Set to Shake Up German Campaign

Germans are wary of fracking, but that hasn't stopped Berlin from moving ahead to create legal guidelines for the controversial natural gas extraction method. The opposition is up in arms and the issue could dog Chancellor Merkel as she campaigns for re-election.
A hydraulic fracturing site in Pennsylvania. Germans are wary of sights such as this.

A hydraulic fracturing site in Pennsylvania. Germans are wary of sights such as this.


The fear among opposition organizations is palpable. "No chemicals in our earth", one group, called "Gegen Gasbohren" -- or "Against Gas Drilling" -- states on its web page. Another activist faction warns against an "attack on our drinking water supply." They are among a dozen or so citizen initiatives aimed at "fracking," a method for extracting natural gas from previously inaccessible stone deposits through the injection of pressurized fluids containing chemical agents. Most of those initiatives have illustrated their web pages with stop signs, gas masks and even skulls and crossbones.

For the moment, the various anti-fracking groups in Germany operate on their own, primarily taking action on the local level. Municipalities that could be affected if fracking were to be allowed in the country see it as a threat, with many worried about the impact the method could have on the environment.

And this week, that worry has been amplified. SPIEGEL revealed over the weekend  that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to jump-start the extraction of shale gas deposits in the country, essentially ending a hold on the practice due to public concern and safety worries. Legal guidelines for fracking, SPIEGEL has learned, are to be introduced before the general election this autumn, filling an extended legislative silence on the subject.

German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier was quick to react, insisting that the government is merely interested in creating legal clarity. "We want to restrict fracking, we aren't trying to promote it," he told a German public radio station. He says he can't imagine that "fracking will or will be allowed to take place somewhere in Germany in the foreseeable future."

Deceptive Appeasement

The message from Merkel's coalition partners within the Free Democratic Party, however, has been different. The party's environmental spokesperson in German parliament, Michael Kauch, told SPIEGEL that "we can't afford an ideological ban, because fracking can be part of supplying energy."

Indeed, the opposition this week has accused Atlmaier of deceptive appeasement, saying that the very act of creating a law to regulate fracking would make the practice possible. "Those who believe that we can simply carry out experiments on our earth with such activities have not learned the lessons of Fukushima," Thorsten Albig, governor of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, told SPIEGEL ONLINE this week. Green Party floor leader Jürgen Tritten joined the criticism. "This is a law to legalize fracking," he said. "We will stop it in the Bundesrat (Germany's upper legislative chamber)."

For the moment, to be sure, Germany is far away from allowing large-scale fracking. It is currently being tested at only a single site. But the legal environment in Germany is far from clear, and there is plenty of room for interest groups to interpret the law to their own benefit.

The temptation is clear. Fracking in the US has triggered a modern-day oil and natural-gas boom, the size of which has the potential to alter the global energy landscape . Not surprisingly, there are those in Germany who feel that a similar gas rush could be had here. Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources estimates that there is between 0.7 and 2.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas to be found in the country, enough to cover German demand for up to 13 years. Exxon Mobil and the German natural gas company Wintershall are both hoping to undertake test drillings as soon as possible.

Harmful Chemicals

Fracking involves blasting a high pressure stream of fluid into underground stone, essentially fracturing the rock and releasing the natural gas it contains. A mixture of water, sand and different chemicals are used in the process. The technology has developed to such a degree that previously inaccessible deposits can now be profitably exploited.

Activists, however, are concerned that the harmful chemicals used in the process could find their way into the groundwater -- or even trigger landslides by fracturing underground rock. Environmental groups have demanded a complete ban on the method. "Even the best tests aren't enough to accurately evaluate the risks," Rüdiger Rosenthal of Friends of the Earth Germany told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Even among the general population, fracking is seen as being deeply suspect and there are a rising number of petitions and initiatives targeting the practice. Indeed, the issue could ultimately play a role in federal elections this autumn. In the run-up to state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia last year and in Lower Saxony in January -- the two states that are home to Germany's largest natural gas reserves -- citizens groups mobilized against fracking. Though plenty of other issues played roles in the campaigns, candidates skeptical of fracking won out in both cases.

To back up their skepticism, fracking opponents are quick to point to a study released last year by the Federal Environment Agency which highlighted the risks associated with the practice. But even experts are divided. Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert with the German Institute for Economic Research, has issued a plea for at least exploring the possibilities presented by the technology should strict environmental guidelines be adhered to.

Myriad Drillings

Still, even if fracking is allowed, Kemfert doesn't believe that Germany would host a boom comparable to the one in the US. "As far as one has been able to tell thus far, the fields in Germany are smaller and the amount extracted per drilling smaller," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Furthermore, additional research must be performed on how much natural gas is hiding below the surface.

The US has shown that it might be less than originally estimated. The myriad drillings thus far performed have, in addition to natural gas, also delivered the realization that the reserves were likely much less productive than originally thought. The US Energy Information Administration recently lowered their initial estimates by 42 percent.

Geologists in Europe too have been forced to revise their forecasts. Indeed, Exxon cancelled its involvement in Poland altogether after initial test drillings. The results were less than promising, indicating that shale gas reserves there could not be profitably exploited for some time to come.

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