Germany to ban fracking for seven years

31/07/2014 17:20

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Germany plans halt shale-gas drilling for the next seven years over concerns that exploration techniques could pollute groundwater.

"There won't be [shale gas] fracking in Germany for the foreseeable future," German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said Friday in Berlin. The government's planned regulations come amid a political stand-off with Russia, Germany's main gas supplier, and following intensive lobbying from environmentalists and brewers concerned about possible drinking water contamination.

The production of shale gas requires the application of the hydraulic fracturing technology, also known as fracking, which involves using a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to break apart rocks to release gas. The government plans to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing technology for drilling operations shallower than 3,000 meters and hopes to get a bill ready early next year.

The government will reassess the ban in 2021, and will base its decision on fresh findings about the impact of fracking technology.

"Protecting drinking water and health has the highest value for us," Ms Hendricks told reporters.

Fracking technology has been used since the 1960s in Germany, allowing the industry to maximise the output of conventional gas fields. Although there is currently an oversupply of gas in Europe, price in Germany are much higher than in the US where fracking is used extensively.

But Germans are suspicious of fracking, fearing that it could pollute drinking water. Shale gas carrying rock formations tend to be closer to the surface, and therefore closer to ground water deposits.

While fracking for conventional gas will remain permitted, the government will tighten rules aimed at preventing water contamination from fluids released during the fracking process.

A ban on fracking for shale gas is consistent with previous comments from leading lawmakers, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. In its coalition agreement, the government last year stated that it "rejects the application of toxic substances" in oil and gas extraction. The coalition, which groups Ms Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, has said fracking should pose no risk to water supplies.

It has said, however, that it could change its mind if the energy industry were to improve its environmental track record and replace toxic substances with harmless ones.

While the new regulations are aimed at cementing an effective moratorium on shale gas production in Germany, they also pave the way for a reinvigoration of conventional gas production.

Public opposition to fracking had prompted state regulators to restrict almost all gas extraction that involves fracking. And the gas industry has blamed dwindling domestic gas production on the authorities' restrictive approval practices. German domestic gas production declined by around 10 per cent in 2012 and again in 2013, due partly to the fracking ban, according to Wintershall AG, Germany's largest gas and oil producer.

Declining gas production has already hit public budgets. Before the fracking ban, Germany's gas industry contributed roughly €600 million ($816 million) annually in taxes and other income to Lower Saxony's budget. In the coming years, the state is projecting income of around €400 million, the state government has said.

Fracking proponents in Germany have said it could boost the country's economy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. The West's rising tensions with Moscow over Ukraine has also prompted calls for more indigenous gas production to reduce reliance on Russian energy supplies.

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