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'Fracking' Comes to Europe, Sparking Rising Controversy

As concerns grow in the U.S. about fracking to extract natural gas from shale, companies have set their sights on Europe and its abundant reserves of this "unconventional" gas.

Blackpool, in the North West of England, is best known as a traditional seaside holiday town, a place famous for its 518-foot tower (modeled after the Eiffel in Paris), its grand ballroom, and old-fashioned fun, like donkey riding on the beach. More recently, though, it has become known for something else: shale gas drilling.

Four miles from the seafront, in a series of farmers’ fields, a company called Cuadrilla Resources is putting down some of Europe’s first shale gas wells. UK-based Cuadrilla is hopeful that the Bowland Shale — the geological formation that runs through the area — will eventually yield millions of cubic feet of gas, possibly as much as 10 percent of the UK’s total needs. But environmental groups are raising alarms about the potential impact on water supplies, the landscape, and the UK’s wider energy policy.

Across Europe, a host of energy companies are exploring for unconventional deposits in what some are comparing to the great oil and gas rushes of the past. Exxon Mobil has bought up concessions in Germany and Poland. Shell is active in Sweden and Ukraine. Chevron is in Poland. Total is in Denmark and France. And Cuadrilla is also exploring in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Though skeptical not long ago, the industry now is increasingly confident about the size of reserves in Europe, where shale deposits underlie most of the European Union’s 27 states. “It’s gone from people saying, ‘You’re crazy, why are you moving to Poland?’ to ‘Oh, that is the hottest play in Europe,’” says John Buggenhagen, head of exploration at Dublin-based San Leon Energy, which has several concessions in Poland.

According to the International Energy Agency, Europe could hold 35 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of so-called “unconventional gas,” which is dispersed in various rock formations rather than in reservoirs. Europe’s total current demand is roughly 580 billion cubic meters annually.

As the industry takes off, however, critics are raising flags about the environmental ramifications, especially at a time when Europe is supposed to be shifting to a more sustainable energy portfolio. The concerns center mainly on natural gas trapped in shale formations and a controversial technique widely used in the United States — hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking involves pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to break apart the shale rock and release gas to the surface. ProPublica, the investigative reporting Web site, has documented more than 1,000 cases of water contamination near U.S. shale sites in just five states. Hundreds of residents have complained about their water being polluted by fracking and rendered unfit for drinking or bathing.


It is not exactly clear how contamination has occurred, though suspicion rests on “flowback” from wells, since as much as 80 percent of the fracking mixture rises again to the surface. The storage and disposal of wastewater on drilling sites also may be a source of pollution. The anecdotal evidence has been sufficient, however, to push states like New York to pass moratoriums on new shale development, and for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin a major investigation. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said in 2009 that shale gas development caused “invasive industrialization” and created “a substantial risk of chemical contamination, and infrastructure damage.” Shale drilling and fracking represent “unacceptable threats to the unfiltered fresh water supply of nine million New Yorkers,” added acting DEP Commissioner Steven Lawitts.

The New York Times reported on Feb. 26 that it had obtained thousands of internal documents from the EPA and other regulators showing that hundreds of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater that is being trucked to sewage treatment plants and discharged into rivers contains high levels of radioactivity released from the fractured shale. The Times investigation also said that many EPA scientists are concerned that fracking poses a threat to drinking water in states, such as Pennsylvania, where drilling is widespread.

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