On March 1, the Spanish government approved draft legislation permitting exploration for shale gas via the controversial method of fracking; the process of drilling and injecting water into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas contained inside. The draft legislation requires energy companies intending to investigate fracking to present an environmental impact study.
In response, around 50 municipalities in Cantabria and Castilla y León- the northern regions where conditions for fracking are most encouraging - have already written to Industry Minister José Manuel Soria to express their concerns about the potential environmental impact in their localities. In response, the minister reiterated the government's support for fracking while adding that exploration companies would be required to take out civil liability insurance "to cover possible incidents."
US farmers in fracking areas are able to set light to water in their taps
The government has also suggested imposing a levy on hydrocarbon production that would be paid to local communities where shale gas is being extracted. The Socialist opposition and environmental organizations say the proposal is an attempt to buy the support of local governments opposed to shale gas extraction in their areas.
Fracking is loved and loathed in equal measure. Critics of extracting shale gas in this way argue that it will devastate the Spanish countryside with little long-term benefit, while proponents say that it is a golden opportunity for a country that imports 99 percent of its energy. Supporters point to the example of North Dakota in the United States, which has become a leader in shale gas production.
Key elements of a controversial technique
- What is it? Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, consists of breaking the sandstone layer at almost two miles below ground to fracture the gas and oil-containing shale surrounding it. This is achieved by pumping a solution made up of 99.5 percent water , mixed with sand and chemical products, into the earth under high pressure.
- Technological advances in recent years have allowed the residues of the gas and oil sponge to be tapped. Among the methods of non-conventional gas extraction are shale gas, tight gas from compact sand deposits and coal bed methane gas.
- Spanish expectations: The areas with the greatest potential for extracting shale gas are, according to estimates from energy companies via sounding exploration: the Cuenca-Basque-Cantabria , where 1.08 billion cubic meters of non-conventional gas are thought to lie; the Cantabrian massif (381 million cubic meters); the Cuenca-southern Pyrenean (263 cubic meters); and the Iberian mountain chain (95 million cubic meters).
- The latest sectorial data count 70 exploration permits in force and a further 75 awaiting authorization. Forty-seven of these are in the hands of regional administrations. Such interest in Spain's subterranean deposits has not been seen since the 1970s. The permits are generic in nature and allow "investigation of hydrocarbons," but the majority foresee the utilization of fracking to obtain them.
Critics say that fracking can set off earthquakes and release methane gas into aquifers, while also consuming vast quantities of water in the process. A Sundance Film Festival prize-winning documentary film, Gasland , shows the impact on aquifers in areas of the United States where extensive fracking has taken place; local farmers are able to set light to the water coming out of their taps.
The spread of fracking - a technique that was first developed in the United States four decades ago - and huge interest by Spanish energy companies has sparked concern among environmental groups, and huge expectations from supporters who see it as a solution to reducing the country's reliance on energy imports. According to the Higher Council of the College of Mining Engineers, Spain has up to 39 years of non-conventional gas resources.
Even so, the doubters remain unconvinced and are fearful of the environmental impact. Hugo Morán, the Socialist Party's sustainability spokesman, says that the majority of municipalities and local councils throughout Spain are opposed to fracking. "It is very easy to find scientific studies on the internet about its negative effects," he says.
Julio Barea of Greenpeace Spain says that the pro-fracking lobby has already begun its work. "The Shale Gas Platform has been set up to try to counter our arguments," he says. Laia Ortiz, a deputy for the Plural Left coalition, says that the perceived potential of fracking has put investment into renewable forms of energy on hold. "This is a very short-sighted view; these are the last gasps of a policy to exploit finite resources," she says.
The Higher Council of the College of Mining Engineers last week released a report advising the government to take advantage of the potential of fracking. One of its co-authors, Fernando Pendás, is also involved in the gas-exploration business. The nine companies that make up ACIEP, the Spanish Association of Research, Exploration, and Production of Hydrocarbons and Underground Deposits, say that they plan to invest between 700 million and one billion euros in shale gas exploration.
Experts say Spain has up to 39 years of non-conventional gas resources
"People need to understand the technological reality, the safety measures, and the profits of shale gas," says ACIEP, which estimates the value of Spain's shale gas reserves at 700 billion euros. "If we add to that estimates of oil reserves, which are valued at 150 billion euros, and the reserves are confirmed, rounding that figure up we reach a figure close to Spain's total annual GDP, which is close to one trillion euros," says Juan Carlos Muñoz-Conde, ACIEP's vice president.
"They say that Europe is not North Dakota, where the largest deposits of shale gas are to be found, but if we go back 300 million years, we see that we were part of that land mass. Geologically, we are North Dakota, or we could be... we just have to overcome these prejudices," says Enrique Hernández, the technical director of Gessa Consultants, specialists in geological and geophysical underground research and the author of a report commissioned by the sector.
Through fracking shale gas resources, some areas of the United States have created jobs and kickstarted local economies, as well as providing gas at a fifth of the price Europe currently pays. At the same time several reports, including one published in 2011 by Cornell University, say that greenhouse gas emissions from shale production are greater than those produced by conventional oil and gas production, or even from mining coal.
People need to understand the safety and the profits of shale gas"
Critics of fracking say that whatever the geological connection, there is one big difference between Spain and the United States: the subsoil and its resources are the property of the state; and there is another: Spain is more densely populated than the United States. "It is no coincidence that non-conventional shale gas exploitation in the US is conducted in areas where there are no population centers and which are often deserted. Uninhabited spaces like that are rare in Spain, as in the EU generally," says Hugo Morán. Exploration permits issued in Spain so far have only allowed companies to identify deposits of oil or gas on small plots of land; permission for production has not been given.
Fracking first hit the headlines in Spain in 2011 when the then-head of the Basque regional government, the Socialist Party's Patxi López, announced that a shale gas deposit had been discovered in Álava province that is equivalent in size to five times the country's annual gas consumption. The regional government pressed ahead with development, setting up a publicly owned company called Hidrocarburos de Euskadi. But when López was voted out of office last year, his successor, Iñigo Urkullu of the Basque Nationalist Party, put the project on hold.
A deposit in Ávala is equivalent to five times the country´s annual consumption
Residents in the area marked for development staged demonstrations, prompting several local councils to declare Álava a "fracking-free zone."
The Platform for a New Energy Model was set up in the wake of the protests by the mayor of Albuquerque in Badajoz province, Ángel Vadillo, when the government cut subsidies on renewable energy development. It now brings together 64 organizations and more than 600 individuals. "Why is Spain pushing for these technologies and not for renewables?" asks spokesman José Vicente Barcia. "Why does Germany, a country with much less sun than Spain, have a bigger solar energy sector than we do?"
The EU still lacks joint legislation on the environmental impact of this controversial method of extracting hydrocarbons and there is no sign of any being passed soon given the lack of agreement between member states. France, Ireland and Bulgaria have imposed moratoria on fracking; Poland is very much in favor. "It's going to be difficult to achieve any kind of consensus," says Raúl Romeva, a European Member of Parliament for the Catalan Greens Party. "Energy Commissioner Oettinger is a staunch defender, based on countries being able to formulate their own energy policy, but Potocnik, the environment commissioner, is wary, warning that there are still too many unanswered questions and that the economic benefits remain unclear."
So far, the reports commissioned by the European Commission and the European Parliament have reached differing conclusions. A report from January 2012 says that no further environmental legislation is necessary. In contrast, the European Parliament approved a resolution last November calling on the Commission to "extend European environmental legislation."
A new bubble?
A friend of mine recently told me that on a trip to the Basque Country he was surprised to see a poster in a bakery saying "No to Fracking." This militancy had been prompted by recent discoveries of shale gas in the area, which a number of companies were proposing to exploit.
Fracking raising two main concerns: the geological risks associated by pumping huge amounts of water into the ground under pressure; and the difficulty in preventing that water from seeping into aquifers. The upside is that if shale gas can be extracted safely, it will reduce our fuel imports, which are dependent on ever-shifting prices, as well as reducing output of greenhouse gases.
Fracking has already prompted intense debate. It is not covered by specific environmental legislation, nor is there any certainty about the size of deposits and whether or not they can be extracted; but shale gas has already had a notable impact on the US energy market and signals a major shift in global energy alliances.
The International Energy Agency highlights the impact of shale gas on global energy flows, while market analysts are reordering their price previsions and investment priorities.
Gas clearly has a role to play in the energy transition we need to undergo, but Europe should not forget the role of efficiency and renewables as the hubs of its economic competitiveness and energy security, nor be conditioned by what happens in the United States.
Sadly, technological advances, investment and innovation - and even global political events - seem to be delaying addressing climate change and environmental limits, abandoning technological conquests in renewables, instead concentrating efforts on something as traditional as gas and oil. Will fracking be a new and costly bubble?
Teresa Ribera was Secretary of State for Climate Change between 2008 y 2011
Gas in Spain for 39 years
Estimates of global reserves of non-conventional gas are for more than 100 years. In absolute terms, the outlook for Spain is more modest, but still important for its economy. The study by the Higher Council of the College of Mining Engineers puts reserves at 39 years, based on current consumption.
The reserves are in the Basque- Cantabrian, Pyrenean, Ebro, Guadalquivir and Bética Basins. One of the biggest controversies associated with its exploitation is the use of hydraulic fracturing, a technique associated with the following risks:
- The amount of water used in each well is between 10,000 and 20,000 m3 - the equivalent amount required to water a standard golf course for a little over a month.
- To avoid the contamination of aquifers highly resistant steel pipes are installed and cemented in place with annular spaces between them and the surface. If a well were to have a structural or design problem, there would be two possible risks: an uncontrolled leak of fluids toward the surface, which is a remote probability but of high impact (to avoid them, all wells are equipped with eruption preventers) and annual leak: deficient cementation would permit fluids to move vertically up the well, facilitating their migration toward the areas where the pipelines and aquifers are located. This would be a malpractice not associated with technology.
- The typical composition of fracturing fluid tends to be approximately 99.5 percent water and sand, with 0.5 percent made up of chemical products used in other industrial areas such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and the food industry, etc.
- Water return flows tend to show radioactive levels. This is natural radioactivity, with minimal values, due to the higher radioactive elements found in shale and coal, compared to other rock types. There is the risk of fracturing bringing about uncontrolled methane leaks that would allow gas to percolate to the surface. In the exploitation of a non-conventional field, controlling these leaks is much more exhaustive, for example, than in traditional coal mining. Furthermore, wide-ranging legislation already exists to guarantee environmental protection, and that should reassure the general public.
Ángel Cámara is a professor of Chemical Engineering and Combustibles at the Polytechnic of Madrid.