Freitag, 12. Oktober 2012

No new technology, but a new era. 

By Claudia Wohlsperger

For 50 years, hydraulic fracturing has been a technique to reach hard-to-get oils and gas from the ground in Germany. For 50 years, not so much attention has been paid to the practice. But now, it seems that a turning point had been reached. 

Paul Bludau is protesting against hydraulic fracturing. He is a pensioner, and together with other members of his action group, he goes to markets, to talk to people, to inform them. “We’re making games and so on, hand out flyers, discuss,” he says. Perhaps a reason for the growing discomfort of so many people with hydraulic fracturing has something to do with ‘Gasland’, an American documentary. The film shows grave environmental damages, gas leaking from faucets and contaminated ground water that can be linked to this fracking. Earthquakes and radioactive flowback water have been reported. For ExxonMobil and the German Ministry of the Environment, this news is the main cause of the protest. But did it only take a movie to stir up German action groups? There are other factors involved, explaining why fracking has only become ‘popular’ now. 

Hydraulic Fracturing – how does it work?  

Hydraulic Fracturing describes a technology that enables the breaking up of tight stone formations in depth of one to five kilometers under the ground. A mix of water, sand and different chemicals (so-called additives) are pumped into a borehole with great pressure, causing the stone at the end of the borehole to fracture. Natural gas, captured in the stone, is thereby released and can flow out of the borehole, which then functions as a well. For every drill, 250.000 to 5.000.000 liters of fresh water are used. As a comparison, an Olympic swimming pool keeps 2.500.000 liters of water.

With this fracking, gasses like tight and shale gas are produced. Tight gas is enclosed in rock layers with low permeability; it’s hard to reach because the rock locks it in. This gas has been produced in northern Germany since 1968. Shale gas is locked in shale formations, which inhibit clay minerals. In Germany, shale gas production has not taken place yet. 

Natural gas has been an important energy source for Germany for years and will remain to be relevant during the Energy Turn: it is cleaner than coal and safer than nuclear energy. Greater energy efficiency in Germany has lead to a decrease of the total amount of natural gas. But its percentage used for the production of electricity and as fuel is rising, which has a balancing effect. Since 2002, natural gas is at around 22% of Germany’s primary energy consumption. More and more, Germany is utilizing its own resources. According to Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen e. V., a consortium working on German energy statistics, 14 percent of the natural gas used in Germany is also produced there. In 2010, it was 10 percent. 

Shale Gas: new potentials, new threats

Until now, companies have only produced tight gas in Germany, but this is changing. The International Energy Agency estimates Germany’s shale gas resources at 230 billion cubic meters. That is cubic meters of natural gas that can only be reached with hydraulic fracturing. 

There are differences between the production of tight gas and shale gas, but the German environmental protection agency Umweltbundesamt (UBA) and ExxonMobil disagree on what they are: “For tight gas, you need less pressure and water than with shale gas”, says Bernd Kirschbaum from the UBA. This would make shale gas production potentially more harmful, ‘wasting’ valuable water and perhaps causing more earthquakes. Dr. Ritva Westendorf-Lahouse, ExxonMobil spokeswoman in Germany, emphasises another aspect: “We expect to need a smaller percentage of additives than with tight gas production. While tight gas deposits require 2-5% chemical additives, we expect to need less than 0,5% for shale gas deposits. Compared to other industries, the water consumption of natural gas production is rather low. Power generation from coal requires much more water.” This information is not conflicting; Shale gas might require fewer chemicals but more pressure. It can still be more harmful to produce than tight gas. This is no comfort for residents close to drilling sites.

But shale gas sites are not tapped yet. Mr. Kirschbaum points out: “Companies have marked out claims. But the Federal Mining Act has two different authorizations for exploration and extraction. So far, the energy companies only have exploring permissions.” For Kirschbaum, this is good news, especially because many of these permissions haven’t been used yet. 

Big Players versus the People

In the last few years, it seems that Wintershall (a BASF daughter), ExxonMobil and RWE Dea have split up northwest Germany amongst each other to explore its shale gas potential. In return, 16 action groups were formed to fight them: because exploration requires drilling and sometimes even fracking. It comes surprising then, when Dr. Westendorf-Lahouse says, “The first frac in Germany that ExxonMobil was involved with was in 1968.” But drilling so far has taken place in Lower Saxony – the new protest groups are largely from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Some action groups have formed because they have made negative experiences in the past – for example high benzene and mercury levels in their groundwaters or small earthquakes. But most, like Stefan Henrichs’ Bürgerinitiative “Gegen Gasbohren” (action group against gas drilling) Drensteinfurt, have formed precautionally: “We had test drills in 1995, but not since. We formed this group when plans for Nordwalde, Borken and Drensteinfurt got public,” he says. That was in November 2010. So far, nothing has happened. 

Paul Bludau’s interest group Märkischer Kreis has similar intentions. “Here in Sauerland, we get drinking water from our own wells. And the federal government, the Christian Democrats (CDU), they’re very hesitant. The local [NRW] governments, they’re on our side, you know!” Bludau is frustrated. Mining was responsibility of the states until the 1980’s. Now, it would be the federal government’s task to change the law, enabling environmental reviews and restrictions even for exploration. “It’s the lobby; the lobby and the federal CDU that block a change of the law,” claims Bludau, “but the opposition is growing!”

The Federal Mining Act: an old Law in the way

This Federal Mining Act is a center of attention in many action groups. Bludau believes “the primary concern is that the Mining Act has to change. It is 180 years old, that’s unbelievable. In the 1980’s they changed it, but they only transformed it from state law to federal law. The law itself almost didn’t change.” This is problematic, because the Mining Act entails that as long as less than 500.000 cubic meters of gas are produced per day, no environmental review is necessary. “Once this is changed, everything would be okay. Then nothing can happen,” Bludau believes. Bernd Kirschbaum is of a similar opinion: “We [the Umweltbundesamt] cannot support hydraulic fracturing at this point, we simply don’t know enough about it.” But because the Mining Act is still in place and reviews are unavailable, exploration can continue. 

Lutz Keppner from the Federal Ministry for the Environment explains, “A change for the environmental review policy in the Mining Act is justified and necessary.” But his ministry is not in charge – it is the Ministry for the Economy. 

After the Frac comes the Flowback 

The companies assure that groundwater holding layers are safe, because thick concrete tubes lock off the borehole from chemicals and gasses. Also, the frac takes place far below these layers. 

But many action groups are outraged about these claims: higher levels of benzene were measured in their drinking water. The crux about hydraulic fracturing is not only the chemicals used for the process – but what happens with them afterwards. A large part of the fracking fluid is pumped back up, but a rest remains inside the borehole. Through the cracks, chemicals and natural gas could move into more permeable layers and into the groundwater.  

The part that is pumped back up and led to storage through a conduit system cannot be recycled or used again. On its website, RWE Dea published a press release on the 7th of June, 2012, stating: “A small amount of processed water leaked out of the conduit system in Becklingen Z1”, further information could not yet be provided. News like these is one of the reasons why the image of hydraulic fracturing is turning negative. 

ExxonMobil is doing its best to reconcile. The multinational’s German website offers a detailed description of every fracking fluid used – and they try to take the scary out of the chemical terms. As an example: Tetramethylammonium chloride is used in fracking fluid – and hair shampoo. Nevertheless, two skulls serve as a warning, and rather than feeling comforted, it leaves you worried about the shampoo you use. But they also state to have the goal to find non-toxic alternatives in the course of this year – putting them a step ahead of impartial institutions that are currently working on environmental impact studies. 

Company wisdom and the impartial research

And indeed, it seems that the energy companies have the biggest say and the greatest knowledge. Other than official environmental agencies, they have more information about what is going on and how to improve it. “In principle, the technology used in the USA and in Germany is the same, but German engineers refined the machineries for the conditions of our sites. Every frac is being planned and simulated individually. And the implementation takes place under German environmental and security standards, which are exemplary for the world,” states Dr. Westendorf-Lahouse. 

But for the UBA this is not enough. For years, no studies have been conducted about the environmental impacts of fracking. “We need a way to control how long the subterranean cracks are, and how companies deal with the flowback,” demands Bernd Kirschbaum. There is no information available regarding gas in groundwaters; not on the long-term effects of the chemicals in the ground, or how earthquakes can be avoided. According to Dr. Westendorf-Lahouse, the damages that were reported in the USA cannot be linked to hydraulic fracturing. But impartial studies are desperately needed to confirm this. 

Scientific Studies catching up slowly

And these studies are on their way. “A study on behalf of the Ministery of the Environment is meant to answer open questions about the risks of Fracking. The results will be presented this summer,” says Keppner. “Only when all knowledge gaps are eliminated, when there is clarity about the risks and all details are on the table, there will be decisions about further steps – possibly also the adaption of federal regulations.” This does not sound very promising, and it happens late. But activist Paul Bludau seems content anyways: “That something is happening at all is great. The pressure from below has achieved this. That’s why our outreach work is so important!” 

The Federal Institute for Earth Sciences and Resources is working on a study since 2011 to research the actual potential of German gas resources, and results are expected by 2015. Keppner adds a suggestion: “As long as there are knowledge gaps, we advise the states to avoid permissions for exploration.” But companies like ExxonMobil and Wintershall were faster. It will be left to see if these studies will be able to loosen the grip of the energy giants over German gas potentials. 

The current debate about hydraulic fracturing is comprehensible and important, even if it may have started delayed. Public action groups have concerned themselves with an important task: creating pressure from below to force change. Stefan Henrichs, Paul Bludau and their private initiatives have been successful so far: In many places, test drills were averted, postponed until more scientific knowledge is available. The UBA and government agencies have taken the hint and are currently conducting studies that will perhaps lead to the awaited changes to the Federal Mining Act, enforcing a requirement for environmental reviews. 

The big players, ExxonMobil, Wintershall, and RWE Dea, are forced to disclose more and more information and to improve their processes; the people are holding them accountable.

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