Q&A – Energy crisis reignites debate about fracking in Germany
- What is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”?
- What are the environmental risks of fracking?
- How big are Germany’s shale gas reserves?
- What is the current status of fracking in Germany?
- How does the German public think about fracking?
- New debates: Can fracking help Germany in the current energy crisis?
- Why could fracking in Germany make sense?
- How likely is it Germany will start fracking?
What is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”?
Until about two decades ago, oil and gas was extracted almost exclusively from so-called “conventional” reserves – geological formations -- from which it was easy and cheap to extract fossil fuels. However, much of the world’s resources are trapped in “unconventional” reserves. Rock formations with low permeability, such as shale, are more difficult and expensive to work with. New extraction techniques were necessary to tap this potential, notably horizontal drilling, and the controversial hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”.
Hydraulic fracturing produces fractures in the rock formation that stimulate the flow of natural gas or oil and increase the volumes that can be recovered. However, it does so by using chemicals and high amounts of pressure, which can lead to environmental damage, such as water pollution or even earthquakes. Today fracking is used in both conventional and unconventional reservoirs.
The United States, for example, has grown to become the world’s biggest oil and gas producer thanks to a boom made possible over the last decade by horizontal drilling and fracking.
What are the environmental risks of fracking?
The extraction of fossil fuels from the ground and their use always has an effect on the environment. However, there has also been some research on the specific environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, or increased risks compared to other extraction methods. These include:
- Water contamination (e.g. through fluid leaks, faulty oil & gas well construction and wastewater mismanagement)
- Health-threatening air pollution
- Climate-harmful methane emissions
The government-established expert commission on fracking in 2021 produced several reports on the risks of fracking. It said that in Germany there would be a “low” risk regarding the protection of groundwater and surface waters – with the right monitoring and protective measures. It said climate-harmful methane leakage rates would be similar to those in other countries. (Some research has said methane emissions were significantly higher with fracking than from conventional gas extraction, other research has said the difference is not so big.) Experts also say that the risk of inducing earthquakes with more than a minor damaging effect through fracking is “extremely low”.
How big are Germany’s shale gas reserves?
Germany’s shale gas reserves are many times larger than the country’s conventional natural gas reserves. Proven conventional reserves come to around 20 billion cubic metres (bcm).
In contrast, the country has between 320 and 2,030 billion bcm of shale gas resources in depths of 1-5 kilometres, which could be extracted from a technical point of view, the federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) said in its 2016 report. The paper was meant to feed into the debate about the possible domestic exploitation of shale gas reserves in Germany. Most of this potential is located in the northern state of Lower Saxony. Germany has only a very small fraction of global shale gas resources, with China likely topping the list of countries by having more than 25,000 bcm, the BGR report showed (also U.S. Energy Information Administration 2015).
In recent years, Germany has used more than 90 bcm gas annually. The shale reserves could thus theoretically enable Germany to cover its current gas demand in full over 3-22 years or, more realistically, to stabilise its own share of domestic natural gas, which has been declining for several years.
Germany produced 5.7 bcm of gas from conventional reserves in 2021. Ludwig Möhring, CEO of the Association of German Oil and Gas Producers and Geothermal Energy (BVEG), said that Germany could “conceivably” produce 10 bcm of shale gas annually “in a few years’ time”.
Shale gas is a “substantive resource” in Germany, said BGR in its 2016 report. “However, the figures do not give cause for exaggerated expectations. A shale gas boom, as in North America, is not to be expected.”
Fracking in Germany is a mirage: if you get close to it, it vanishes into thin air.
What is the current state of fracking in Germany?
In Germany, fracking has been used to a very limited extent in conventional reservoirs like sandstone. However, the more controversial unconventional fracking – for example, in shale formations – has been prohibited by law since 2017 (§13a of the Water Resources Act). It has not been used in Germany to extract gas or oil. (ExxonMobil did a test drill for exploration in Lower Saxony in 2008 which used unconventional fracking)
Only a total of four test projects to research the impact of unconventional fracking on the bedrock and the water supply have been permitted. By mid-2022, no tests have been conducted, or even requested. The respective federal state would have to agree to such a test. In 2021 the economy ministry said that current fracking rules in Germany had proven their worth and the ministry did not recommend changes.
What does the German public think about fracking?
Fracking has been a controversial issue in German society, largely due to residents’ worries about the environmental risks when extraction takes place in a country which is much more densely populated than prominent producing regions like the state of Texas in the U.S..
Germany lacked rules on fracking for some time, and a decision on this controversial topic was postponed several times, also out of fear the opposition would profit from the debate during the national elections in 2013. It was again hotly debated following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, when the dependence on Russian fossil fuels was last in the spotlight. Anti-fracking initiatives were founded in German municipalities, and a fracking-ban campaign by Campact was quickly signed by hundreds of thousands of people. In 2015, two-thirds of Germans said they support a complete ban of fracking in the country.
Today, as the debate on fracking has resurfaced due to the energy crisis, a majority of the population is still against using the technology. In an infratest dimap poll from August 2022, 56 percent of respondents opposed fracking in Germany (similar results in a Civey poll from July). In the prime fracking location of Lower Saxony, a survey showed that 71 percent were against fracking. The state’s environment minister Olaf Lies (SPD) said this summer that there is “zero acceptance” of fracking in the population.
Environmental NGOs and activists have also begun to increase the pressure again. Campact, together with WWF and NABU, started an online appeal to the government to “keep fracking banned”.
New debates: Can fracking help Germany in the current energy crisis?
With the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine exacerbating the energy crisis, some politicians have called for fracking in Germany as a way towards greater independence from gas imports. However, most politicians and energy experts agree that it would take years until the first fracking gas could be expected. Thus, it would be of little help in the current energy crisis.
Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder caused an outcry when he called for fracking, because most reserves lie in the far-away state of Lower Saxony. The FDP has called for fracking for years, and finance minister Christian Lindner has been at the forefront of a rethink of how Germany makes use of its domestic fossil fuels, including fracking natural gas. His calls were quickly rejected by government coalition partners from the Green Party such as economy minister Robert Habeck. Chancellor Olaf Scholz also came out against fracking.
While geologists have said that the first gas could be extracted about six months after drilling takes place, the road to said drilling would be a long one. Parliament would need to change the law and permit procedures could take years, especially due to local opposition. By the time domestic production could contribute to the country’s gas supply, other regions in the world will have long ramped up production in response to the energy crisis, while demand in Germany is projected to decrease significantly, also due to the crisis.
“By the time fracking could make any meaningful contribution to Germany's energy supply, we can already save much more through insulating buildings and installing heat pumps,” Mathias Koch, policy advisor at think tank E3G told Deutsche Welle.
Why could fracking in Germany make sense?
Domestic production of shale gas would provide Germany with more independence from imported fossil fuels. This is the key argument in today’s debates. It would also allow the country to profit from its own resources, instead of paying others. German companies could be involved in all stages of the production process.
Germany has also been accused of “fracking hypocrisy”, because it allows the import of fracking gas; for example from the U.S.; with all the consequences for the local environment and society there, while banning the technology at home.
Fracking at home could also reduce climate harmful emissions to some extent. Extracting gas in regions where there is a lot of leakage and flaring of methane during the production process (like the Permian Basin in Texas), then cooling it down to minus 160 degrees Celsius, shipping it across the ocean, to then putting it in the European grid means the climate footprint of imported gas can be very high.
How likely is it Germany will start fracking?
It is very unlikely. Chancellor Scholz in several interviews made clear that unconventional fracking will not have a place in the country’s energy policy under his government. “Previous federal governments have examined these [fracking] projects. Local resistance was so great that they were never realised,” Scholz told newspaper Welt am Sonntag in October 2022. He added that “natural gas is not our future” and explained that Germany aimed to be climate neutral by 2045. In an interview with Funke Mediengruppe in December 2022, Scholz said: "Fracking in Germany is a mirage: if you get close to it, it vanishes into thin air." Investment in German shale gas extraction would hardly be worthwhile because it would take too long until domestic sources could be used - "by then gas demand will have declined significantly," he said.
With opposition from most German parties, it is unlikely the Bundestag would change the current legislation. Even if the law is changed to allow unconventional fracking, permit procedures would take several years, the expert commission on fracking said, and propose an additional year for preliminary exploration and tests on environmental effects.
More importantly is the opposition by the population and government of key German gas state Lower Saxony. This opposition means it is very unlikely domestic fracking will have a place in the country’s energy future.
States have not agreed to any test projects since the new law has been in place, and it is considered very unlikely they would do so. The new government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Green Party in Lower Saxony – the state with most extraction and potentials for shale gas – is also opposed. “Fracking for the extraction of oil and natural gas from unconventional deposits is rejected by us and must remain banned,” the parties write in their coalition agreement, adding that there would be no new permits for conventional gas extraction in sensitive areas like the Wadden Sea national park. NGO DUH had asked leading candidates in the run-up to the election on 9 October 2022 about their position on unconventional fracking, which all but the FDP rejected.
Regional environment minister Olaf Lies said: “The fracking debate is completely absurd, it wouldn't help at all today. Even optimists say that it takes at least five years until production can start.”