WASHINGTON – Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, have spent years trying to persuade European countries to hold off on expanding shale gas production for the simplest of reasons: Such a shift would pose a long-term threat to Russia’s energy dominance over Europe. But the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula is giving Europe new enthusiasm for fracking – and potentially bringing about the exact outcome Russia has spent years trying to avoid.
The Old Continent has been largely reluctant to use the drilling technology that has enabled the U.S. energy boom despite indications that Europe sits atop plentiful shale gas reserves. Only a handful of countries, led by Poland and Britain, have seriously considered it, while several have banned fracking altogether. There are growing signs, however, that Russia’s heavy-handed antics could be changing Europe’s energy calculus in fundamental ways.
The European Parliament has passed energy legislation that includes tougher environmental rules for oil and gas exploration – but specifically excludes shale gas projects from the new regulations. Poland passed tax breaks meant to juice shale gas exploration there. Big European business lobbies, including steel-makers and the EU employers’ association, just called for the continent to embrace shale gas as a way out of its energy straitjacket.
Europe’s changing attitude was reflected in a statement issued by Gordon Moffatt – director general of European steel lobby Eurofer – one day after the group sent an open letter to all European heads of state urging a shift in energy policy.
“Given the absolute necessity for Europe to diversify its sources of supply of gas and to find solutions to the huge energy price differential with its main competitors,” the statement said, “we see no alternative but to proceed as rapidly as possible with shale gas exploitation as part of the energy mix in Europe while retaining all the precautions necessary in pursuing this approach.”
Europe’s growing support for fracking isn’t entirely new. Business groups across the continent were calling for more shale gas production even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered fears that Moscow could use energy as a weapon to prevent European powers from intervening. Even in France, home to some of the continent’s most ardent environmentalist groups, fracking’s high-profile defenders include Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg.
But in the past, fracking proponents zeroed in on economic arguments, namely the fear that European industrial firms are losing ground to their U.S. counterparts, which are blessed with relatively cheap and abundant natural gas that serves as both fuel and a key ingredient of petrochemicals like plastics and gas-derived diesel.
Now, though, energy security fears unleashed by Russia’s aggressive behavior have joined economic arguments in fracking proponents’ arsenal.
“It’s been a shot in the arm for Europe, in a way it wasn’t in the previous two gas cutoffs” in 2006 and 2009, said Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of the energy security program at the Center for a New American Security. “This is a significant reinvigoration of efforts that are already underway, but has served to make the public and policymakers think more creatively about the energy options they have.”
Keith Johnson is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. This commentary was distributed by The Washington Post-Bloomberg News Service.