The EU authorities have opened a new front in efforts to clamp down on shale gas, warning that the carbon footprint from methane emissions may be high enough to call into question the whole future of fracking in Europe.
“The level of methane emissions tilts the balance for or against the development of shale: it is the central issue. We don’t want to copy and paste what happened in the US. We will do things differently in Europe,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
Mr Delbeke said drilling firms will have to come up with plans to track methane emissions or face EU legislation forcing them to do so. “Either the companies put it on the table or a regulation is going to come at the European level,” he said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says methane is 86 times more damaging than CO2 over a 20-year period, and risks triggering a dangerous “feedback loop” for global warming.
Mr Delbeke’s warnings come as Brussels draws up its framework law for shale by the end of the year, shaping rules that could make or break the industry in Europe. A tough code risks a cathartic showdown with Britain just as the country gears up for a referendum on EU membership. Any sense that Brussels was obstructing the UK’s economic revival could prove the last straw for many voters.
Britain has no veto on EU environmental laws, which are decided by “qualified majority vote” and are often used as a backdoor way to override national energy policy.
Adding to the concerns, euro MPs voted for an amendment this week that obliges frackers to carry out environmental audits, even at the exploration stage. “The key point is that this covers every phase and every site, however small,” said Andrea Zanoni, an Italian Green MEP and author of the text.
The legislation requires the assent of EU governments but Mr Zanoni said a majority will back the tougher rules. “I am very confident. A lot of countries are now against shale,” he said.
It is far from clear whether Britain can muster a “blocking minority” to prevent measures that threaten to eviscerate the Government’s shale strategy. Owen Patterson, the Environment Secretary, quietly met with Polish counterparts in August to help forge an Anglo-Polish alliance backed by Romania.
Debate is highly polarised. France, Bulgaria, Denmark and the Czech Republic have either banned exploration or plan to do so, as has Spain’s shale-rich region of Cantabria. The German people are deeply hostile.
The Commission itself is divided. Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani is pushing for light-touch rules, warning of a “systemic industrial massacre” in Europe unless energy costs are brought down to nearer US levels. “We need a new energy policy. We have to stop pretending, because we can’t sacrifice Europe’s industry for climate goals that are not realistic,” he said last month.
Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies said the EU elites are waking up to the danger of a quixotic energy policy that renders Europe uncompetitive. “There are now a lot of people who know we can’t afford to handicap Europe’s recovery, and that it makes no sense to import gas from Russia,” he said.
EU spokesman Joe Hennan said Brussels had been flooded by 13,000 submissions on shale gas. “There is a lot of concern that fracking may be dangerous. There is no question of us banning shale but we have to know what the risks are,” he said.
The Environment Directorate is taking the lead role in drafting the law. It is relying on expert reports that have been even-handed so far, concluding that CO2 emissions from shale are less than relying on imported Russian gas. However, the new concern about methane changes the picture, providing a potent case for those who want to stop fracking altogether.
Scientific opinion is deeply divided. A report by Cornell University relying on aircraft measurements concluded that the methane leakage was 3.6pc to 7.9pc of gas produced, a level that renders shale gas more harmful than coal.
A conflicting study by the University of Texas drawing on ground data found that the leakage is just 0.42pc, and that the carbon footprint from shale is even lower than first thought by the US authorities.
Jason Nisse, from the UK Onshore Operators Group, said Britain’s drillers can handle anything likely to be imposed by Brussels. “The UK already has the most stringent fracking rules in the world. We haven’t seen anything yet from the EU that really frightens us,” he said.
The snag is that Britain’s rules are voluntary guidelines. The EU rules will almost certainly be legally-binding, and the enforcement watchdog may not be so friendly.