Two research projects to investigate the impact of shale gas exploitation and fracking have each been awarded funding from Horizon 2020, the EU's research programme.
The projects, led by Edinburgh University and University College London, aim to provide objective assessments of the environmental impact of the controversial technique. The money will flow from a pot for shale gas research worth around €12 million. This kitty will also finance two more projects on the same topic.
“For the very first time, we have launched a dedicated action which will support researchers and scientists in their quest to understand, prevent and mitigate the potential environmental impacts and risks of shale gas exploration and exploitation,” said Robert-Jan Smits, director-general for the European Commission’s Research and Innovation directorate.
While European governments are free to decide whether or not to sanction fracking, they must be in a position to make informed and responsible choices, Smits said. “It is here that science and research is absolutely vital,” he told a European Commission conference, ‘Shale gas in a low-carbon Europe: the role of research’ held in Brussels on Monday.
The decision to award grants to study fracking was condemned by some environmentalists and the conference was briefly disrupted by two demonstrators who unfurled a banner which read “Ban Fracking”.
Smits was careful to emphasise the Commission is not preparing the ground for industry to start exploiting European shale reserves. The research fall squarely into the category of risk assessment, he claimed.
“We must address concerns with sound scientific evidence - taking the debate away from emotions and fears, and basing it on facts and figures,” Smits said. The projects will help in establishing a bigger pool of data and scientifically-based recommendations.
The grant-winning researchers stressed that the money is not going to gas companies, which would otherwise have had to pay for such research themselves. “We’re working with Halliburton on our project but it won’t receive any EU funds,” said Alberto Striolo, professor of molecular thermodynamics at UCL, project coordinator.
Striolo’s three-year project will look at tracking the below-the-ground migration of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Alongside Halliburton, which provides drilling and pumping services to the oil industry, other partners on the project include Manchester and Alicante universities.
The goal of the study led by Edinburgh University is to improve understanding of environmental impacts above ground level, Christopher McDermott, a senior lecturer in hydrogeology and project coordinator, told delegates. Other partners in the three-year project include Uppsala University and Pennsylvania State University.
The total spend by the Commission on the topic between now and 2020 will be around €12 million.
Need for large-scale experiment
Before any commercial drilling for shale oil or gas begins in Europe, a large-scale research test-bed should be set up to assess the risks, John Cherry, director of the consortium on groundwater research at the University of Guelph, Canada, told delegates.
Without a large-scale research site in Europe, the controversies surrounding fracking will keep replaying, said Cherry. “Not a single fracking well pad has been monitored anywhere in the world in a way that we’d call rigorous. No organisation has gone to a fracking site and [properly] instrumented it,” he noted.
In Alberta, Canada, where Cherry has been involved in researching the effect of fracking on groundwater, that is about to change.
“We’re going to set up an experimental site; a plot of land in a prairie to find out what happens when you inject methane and CO2 into wells in the ground,” said Cherry. It is going to be a very important international site that will attract many scientists.
In this immature science, a European equivalent should be a priority, researchers in the room agreed. “We really need a demonstration site here,” said McDermott.
Baseline monitoring of this kind will require serious backing, however. “Governments have to put up the money for this, industry is not going to do it,” said Cherry.
Fracking involves extracting gas and oil by pumping chemicals, sand and water at high pressure into underground shale beds. Advocates say it could have a positive effect on reducing carbon emissions, if it replaces coal-fired electricity production. To detractors, it is a hazardous technique that has uncertain impacts on groundwater and can cause seismic disruption.
The map of global energy production has been redrawn over the past few years, as the North American output of oil and gas from shale has increased rapidly following decades of investment and research to develop methods for extracting these notoriously difficult fossil fuel reserves.
While Europe has its share of shale resources, exploiting them is controversial. Fracking has been banned in a number of countries, though Poland, Hungary, Romania and the UK, see it as a good opportunity.
Many research questions
There are still an enormous number of research questions to be addressed, said Smits. “Americans go for something and then try and mitigate it along the way; here we’re more prudent and cautious,” he said.
With such little knowledge of the effects of fracking, it is no wonder the wider public is so alarmed and sceptical. “It’s going to take ten years until we’ve got a room of scientists with some kind of consensus,” said Cherry.
Europe could hold trillions of cubic metres of recoverable shale gas but it is still uncertain where reserves are located. Compiling an inventory of shale gas basins is a priority for researchers.
The possibility of air and water contamination is another major concern. Without the proper cementing of underground shale wells, stray gas may migrate to the surface through cracks. Duke University, North Carolina, has released data which shows problems with household water supplies near fracking sites, Cherry noted.
There have also been reports of seismic disturbances linked to fracking in North America and Canada. “We had a small earthquake in Alberta, registering 4.2 on the Richter scale. It was definitely because of fracking,” said Cherry. In Europe, there have been similar reports in the UK and the Netherlands.
Another research blind-spot is the true economic benefit of exploiting shale reserves.
Nicholas Banfield, the European Commission’s acting director for strategy in its Environment directorate said, “I don’t think we should leave these studies to companies: they have short-term [profit] goals. So we need to rely on the European Commission to do this kind of analysis.”
For now, the whole enterprise in Europe is foundering, with exploration companies withdrawing from the field.
The oil company Chevron, which had previously announced it was ending shale gas exploration in Poland, said this week it is pulling out of Romania too. Last month, Exxon Mobil, Total and Marathon Oil also stopped exploration in Poland.
The German government is flirting with the idea of allowing oil and gas drillers to begin fracking. A new proposal, if passed, could open up the country to drilling by the end of the decade. The measure still needs to be passed by the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, when it is voted on in May.
Who is doing research?
Alongside EU funding, there are national programmes such as ReFINE in the UK, the Blue Gas programme in Poland and TKI Gas in the Netherlands, running research competitions for shale gas. There is also a transnational effort in the European Energy Research Alliance which pulls together research centres and universities to share data.
In response to public unrest on the issue, several European governments have created special expert panels. The Royal Society in the UK released a report in 2012; the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany made a similar contribution.
Scientists at the conference pondered whether there a danger in duplicating research efforts. On the contrary, with scientific knowledge still so low in the field, some duplication would be helpful, and would allow scientists to check each other’s work, said Cherry.
Right now, there is an absence of reproducible studies, which is largely the result of a failure to show all the data in reports. “Everyone’s looking at the same lousy data,” Cherry noted.
Oil companies are producing their own evidence too, although it suffers in terms of credibility in research and policy circles.
ExxonMobil has funded research into shale gas safety in Europe and BP has recently released its own assessment. “We don’t see any shale production of any great significance in Europe and the UK by 2035,” said BP’s chief economist, Spencer Dale, referring to the group’s latest Energy Outlook, covering the period until 2035.
Richard Hudson, CEO and Editor of Science|Business, moderated the conference