FERNHURST, England — Europe’s newest weapon in the battle of wills with Russian President Vladimir Putin lies buried deep beneath the ancient oaks and rolling green pastures of this quintessentially English village.
There, wedged in the bedrock, lie vast quantities of oil and natural gas — enough, when combined with the spoils of hundreds of other sites like it, to help kick Europe’s addiction to Russian energy.
Or so says David Cameron.
Ever since Russian forces took hold of Crimea last month, the British prime minister has been leading a chorus of conservative politicians and energy executives in a refrain they believe will spark a shale gas revolution in Europe: Frack, baby, frack.
By Griff Witte and Anthony Faiola, Published: April 7
The push for a European boom in fracking — shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — has been underway for years, but it has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as fears grow of a revival of the Cold War. With Europe leaning on Russia for a third of its natural gas needs, the continent’s leaders say they need to develop their own energy sources — and fast.
Cameron recently said that Britain has a “duty” to frack, and he expressed frustration that it hasn’t happened here as quickly as it has in the United States. Achieving energy independence from Russia, Cameron said, needs to be “a tier-one political issue.”
But for environmentalists, the rush to frack smells of rank opportunism and seems a discouraging turn away from cleaner energy sources. It has also unnerved local landowners, who worry that the green and pleasant lands of the British countryside are about to be churned up in the name of combating the Russian menace.
“Frankly, we’re a small and densely populated island,” said Dieter Helm, who teaches energy policy at Oxford University. “It’s everything that North Dakota isn’t.”
And yet, Britain is like North Dakota in one important respect: There’s a lot of gas down there, both in the United Kingdom and over vast stretches of continental Europe.
Estimates of shale gas reserves are notoriously imprecise, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration last year placed the amount of recoverable resources in Europe at nearly 470 trillion cubic feet — an amount that could light cities from London to Warsaw for decades.
Europe’s reserves are only slightly less than those in the United States, where there are thought to be 567 trillion cubic feet and where a boom in production has sent energy prices tumbling. Europe is also believed to have large quantities of shale oil, but the continent has more options to acquire oil than it does for gas, which is more difficult to transport and store. The focus of the recent push has been on gas.
But extracting that gas is the tricky part. From a technical standpoint, hydraulic fracturing involves drilling deep beneath the Earth’s surface and injecting rock formations with enough water, sand and chemicals to force out the hydrocarbons. From a political standpoint, it means convincing authorities from the European Union on down to local planning commissions that the gains of extraction are worth the environmental cost — a challenge made all the more difficult by widespread public skepticism.
“The potential is enormous. The resource is very large in the U.K. and in Europe,” Francis Egan, chief executive of one of the major fracking firms,Cuadrilla Resources, told an audience at the London-based think tank Chatham House last week. “That’s not to say we can get it out of the ground.”
Speaking alongside Egan, Energy Minister Michael Fallon vowed to give fracking the government’s complete support. “There’s a lot more shale underneath us than we thought,” Fallon said. “It would be irresponsible not to crack on and encourage exploration wherever we can.”
But even as the national government moves full speed ahead, local authorities in Britain are far more tentative — and have kept British fracking projects from moving beyond the exploratory stage.
Environmentalists say fracking could contaminate local water supplies and even set off minor earthquakes. They say, too, that the geology of Europe is less conducive to fracking than that of the United States. “You can’t replicate the U.S. boom here,” said Rebecca Lawson, a policy adviser at the sustainable-development advocacy group E3G.
Egan said that even if all restrictions were lifted tomorrow, it would take about four years to deliver meaningful levels of shale gas production. Most analysts say a decade or more is likely. They note that the United States began investing in shale 25 years ago and only recently began reaping the rewards.