Will fracking make Europe less dependent on Russian gas?

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Eco audit verdict from 26th March, 2014

Britain has a duty to exploit its shale gas reserves, says David Cameron. But is fracking the answer to Europe’s reliance on cheap Russian gas? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

Prime minister David Cameron’s faith in shale gas seems to be misplaced. While fracking may play a part in Europe’s long term future, it will not be in large enough quantities to offset dependence on Russian gas.

The message from Cameron is partly disingenuous. By saying fracking is imminent and there could be wells operating this year, he implies that shale gas could soon be contributing to EU energy. This makes it relevent to the game currently being played between Russia and the EU. This achieves the rhetorical aim of shoehorning fracking into the dominant story of the moment – the Ukraine crisis.

In fact, fracking is entirely irrelevent to the short and medium term energy strategies of the EU. Commercially viable fracking in Europe is only a few years closer than fusion power and contains almost as many uncertainties. The conditions that created the US shale gas boom were unique and, as Antony Froggatt of Chatham House says, “extremely unlikely to be repeated in other parts of the world”. Analysis of the potential for shale in Europe points to significantly higher production prices for Europe’s fracking industry. Under current global gas price conditions, even comparitively cheap indigenous shale gas would have to outcompete Qatari gas before it ate into Russia’s supply.

But that does not mean Cameron is wrong. He argues that the long game needs to be considered and weaning Europe off Russian gas is strategically important. If we accept prima facie that buying gas from Russia is bad. Then Europe’s huge shale reserve is one option for building resiliance and independence into the energy supply.

But according to academics it is simply not a very good one. Most think it might make up a small part of European energy in 20 years time. But it is unlikely to be the panacea Cameron seems to think. Although Harald Heubaum from Univeristy of London did say that you can never be certain with energy markets – very few people predicted the shale boom in the US.

Even so, why, at this moment in time, is Cameron so keen to talk primarily about shale gas and not about energy efficiency and renewable energy? Researchers say these measures are the most cost-effective and realistic ways to reduce the EU’s gas imports. His timing and omission of other options reveals his agenda.

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