Is Shale Gas Excitement in Eastern Europe Unwarranted?

Is Shale Gas Excitement in Eastern Europe Unwarranted?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it is commonly known, is the method of extracting natural gas from shale rock. Despite environmental concerns over the process of pumping water and chemicals deep into the earth to force out gas which is otherwise trapped, some say that a European shale revolution is on its way.

Countries such as France and Denmark have banned fracking, and others have enforced a moratorium to prevent the process from happening in the short term. However, the tide of negative public opinion begins to ebb further East. The Ukraine and Poland have led the way in Europe for the controversial method of gas extraction, with millions being poured into these countries in the hope of a new boom.

Joining Argentina, Algeria, China and Canada in the list of the world’s largest producers of shale gas is the United States, which recently had its own fracking revolution. Oil giants such as Chevron have invested heavily into states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan which so far has proved to be very successful. A net daily average of approximately 138 million cubic feet of gas was produced in 2012. With the recent success of fracking in the US, oil giants are looking towards a new territory to tap into: Eastern Europe.

However, being more densely populated and environmentally conscious than other shale gas-producing states, European countries are historically far more reluctant to approve the controversial method. There is a significant level of opposition from environmental organisations and the public, with the recent lift of the moratorium against fracking in Romania resulting in public demonstrations.

Despite having within its borders one of the largest areas of shale gas in Europe, fracking has been banned in France since the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. Current French president Francois Hollande has also pledged to uphold this ban for his entire five-year term.

However, Eastern European states have encountered less opposition than Western counterparts; Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic are warming to the process, which comes with the promise of a new pool of employment and state income. Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect of all is being rid of Russian energy dependence.

KPMG estimates that approximately 69% of gas consumed in Central and Eastern Europe comes from Russia and with it comes continued power and influence of the former Soviet ruler. Since the end of Soviet rule, Russia has maintained its dominance over the Eastern bloc, both economically and politically. Former Soviet countries have struggled to remove themselves from under Russia’s formidable shadow, however, without energy independence this is simply not possible. Achieving this is probably more important than the environmental impact of fracking.

Still, investors who expect a similar success in Eastern Europe as in the US may very well be disappointed. Firstly, the magnitude of investment required makes fracking in some places, such as Romania, simply not financially viable (exploration and drilling costs are estimated as being three times more expensive in Eastern Europe than in the US).

Secondly, and more importantly, exploration may not even work. So far missions in Poland have been unsuccessful, with ExxonMobil pulling out of the country earlier this year after the sinking of preliminary test wells. Talisman and Marathon Oil followed in their footsteps and ended their own investigatory work in Poland. Even if fracking in Eastern European countries is successful, there are still many years before any return comes to fruition. According to Sally Jones of Chevron, there are still “10-15 years before full commercialization“. The excitement over a shale gas boom in Eastern Europe is not only premature, but perhaps altogether unwarranted.


About Author

Elizabeth Matsangou

Elizabeth works as International Account Manager for an environmental technologies company and has previously worked for a political consultancy company in Westminster and for Intelligence Squared, a forum for live debates. She received a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Essex and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.