01 Apr 2015 | Kerstine Appunn

Strict rules set to make commercial fracking in Germany unlikely

Fracking is to be banned in all protected areas and near aquifers in Germany, a government draft law proposes. Unconventional fracking in upper rock layers is only permitted for scientific purposes or in individual cases. Environmental groups and several parliamentarians criticised the bill was not strict enough, while industry lobbies complained regulations were too tough.

The German government has published a law proposal tightly regulating the use of fracking in gas and oil exploitation. Fracking will be banned in all protected areas and wherever drinking water resources could be endangered. So-called unconventional fracking, less than 3,000 meters below surface, will only be permitted for research purposes if an expert panel considers the drill harmless and all necessary licences from water authorities and other state agencies are obtained. “Unconventional fracking for business purposes will be forbidden for the time being,” Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said at a press conference following the publication.

Fracking describes the extraction of oil and gas with the help of high-pressure water and chemicals.

Parliamentarians from different parties criticised the draft law had loopholes that could see commercial fracking take place after all. They also  want to challenge the provision that the expert panel is to be nominated by the government. Environmental campaigners said promoting a technology for fossil fuel extraction was contradicting Germany’s transformation into a low carbon economy (Energiewende).

Hendricks said the cabinet had agreed unanimously to the proposal. But she anticipated changes would be made to the draft in the upcoming legislative process in parliament and the state-representative chamber, Bundesrat

“We did not permit anything that was previously forbidden. On the contrary, we are prohibiting a lot of things that have been allowed until now,” Hendricks said, defending the proposal her ministry drew up with the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). Instead of a vague moratorium on fracking, which could be legally challenged at any time, the proposed changes to a range of laws including mining, water and environmental protection bills as well as a decree on environmental compatibility testing would give the highest possible protection and legal certainty, Hendricks said.

“Normal” fracking, which has been undertaken in Lower Saxony since the 1960s, is generally permitted, but will be forbidden in all protected areas and near drinking water sources. For all new explorations, the strict environmental compatibility testing process will apply and the water authorities have the right to veto drilling if they see a threat.

Unconventional fracking is legally defined in the draft as taking place above a depth of 3,000 metres in certain types of rock, including shale and clay. Because the danger of polluting aquifers in these layers is greater, fracking will only be permitted for scientific purposes and if the pollution of drinking water can be ruled out. An independent expert panel, established by the government, will examine any application for sample drillings and again the water authority in charge will have a veto. “I think there will only be very few sample propositions in the coming years,” Hendricks said, citing the high cost of such projects. In “individual cases”, commercial projects can be granted exceptional permission with consent from the expert panel, the draft law states.

Critics said this wording provides a loophole for permitting commercial fracking after all. Supporters of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) staged a protest in front of the Chancellor’s office. “The government makes fracking possible. That is a loophole for the likes of Exxon and helps to make a high-risk technology respectable,” said Chris Methmann, Campaigner at Campact. “Fracking threatens drinking water resources, soils and the climate. It is a fossil technology of yesterday and thwarts the Energiewende,“ said Ann-Kathrin Schneider, energy expert at the BUND.

Energy reporter Jürgen Döschner said on Phoenix TV the planned 10 to 16 trial drills were exceeding the dimension needed for scientific purposes.

Members of both governing parties SPD and CDU/CSU oppose the cabinet’s proposal. SPD politician Frank Schwabe told Der Spiegel the envisaged expert panel should not be chosen by the government but by parliament.

While Minister Hendricks stressed Germany would not simply forbid a new technology because this could be unconstitutional and cause legal troubles, she also said he doubted there was need for fracking in Germany. “The answer to our energy issues is not fracking but renewables and increased energy efficiency,” she said at a press conference.

Professor Claudia Kemfert from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) supported this view. “First estimates on the potential of unconventional gas exploited through fracking see only very limited resources. The fracking gas could only cover about 10 years’ worth of natural gas demand in Germany,” she said in a statement. Fracking was not only considerably more expensive than conventional drilling, but citizen protests would make it even less attractive for companies. There was enough natural gas on the world market for Germany to secure its supply, Kemfert argued.

When asked about the option of importing liquid shale gas from the US instead of producing it at home, Hendricks replied that she also doubted that liquid gas imports would play an important role in Europe, particularly since the shale gas boom in the US was running out of steam.

Chemical Industry Association VCI said in a statement the draft law did not deliver a meaningful basis for producing shale gas. “On the contrary, the proposed rules threaten existing gas production in Germany.” Cheap gas and power was pivotal to the competitiveness of its members, the VCI stated.

Unlike Germany, France banned fracking entirely in 2011. The UK has implemented rules that prevent shale gas exploration in protected areas, making up around 40 percent of the land in England.

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