The shale gas battle

The US is immersed in the “shale gas revolution”. In Europe, several countries aspire to follow in the footsteps of the model designed by the American giant. Poland was one of the forerunners.

But what is fracking, or the hydraulic fracturing process? It is a technique used to extract shale gas, classified as unconventional. The technique is used to perforate the subsoil and inject thousands of tons of water mixed with sand and chemical additives to free the gas trapped in layers of shale at a great depth. Controversy is rife as regards the practice and many ecological associations have spoken out against it. Among them, Plataforma Fracking ez!

And the thing is that in the Basque Country, in 2011, the Basque president or lehendakari of the time announced in Texas that there were underground reserves of unconventional gas in Araba. That’s how the Gran Enara project came to light, a project largely located in Araba, although it also extends into Burgos, Cantabria, Bizkaia and Navarra. Five years previously, the Ministry of Industry had given the green light to the public company SHESA (Sociedad de Hidrocarburos de Euskadi S. A.) to start making the first investigations. Later, the consortium for its exploitation was created between SHESA (44%) and North American companies with expertise in extracting this kind of gas.

The Gran Enara project in the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) is, for the time being, at the stage of processing the study on environmental impact before continuing with the surveys, with the aim of exploiting potential gas reservoirs.

Fracking ez! condemns the fact that the contaminated water injected into the subsoil to extract this “unconventional” gas may filter into and contaminate the Subijana aquifer in Araba, causing irreversible damage to the environment and health. Furthermore, it adds that this technique involves the emission of methane gas (increased greenhouse effect), earth movements, habitat destruction, acoustic contamination and the creation of surface pools of toxic sludge.

This is not the only project of its kind planned in the Basque Country; in early 2013 the Spanish Ministry of Industry granted permits to the company Frontera Energy Corporation S. L. to investigate obtaining this kind of gas in the towns of Sopelana and Bermeo in Bizkaia. This project goes by the name of Géminis. In addition, the map of prospections for potential concessions extends to other parts of the BAC (in Gipuzkoa) and Navarra.

In the case of our Autonomous Community, the peculiarity lies in the fact that it is the Administration itself (through EVE and SHESA) that is behind the investigations. In turn, the Basque Parliament is currently processing the Popular Legislation Initiative against fracking, registered after more than 100,000 signatures had been collected (when only 30,000 would have been sufficient).

In other autonomous communities, such as Cantabria, Catalonia and Navarra, for example, an attempt has been made to lend form to the majority opposition of the political parties to fracking in their respective laws and regulations. However, the Constitutional Court has invalidated these anti-fracking laws, arguing that competence as regards the mining and energy regime corresponds to the State and not to the autonomous communities. But the competence conflicts go deeper than this and are caught in a loop with no exit: despite State competence in the basic matter, different competences as regards the environment and regional planning are transferred to the autonomous communities and municipalities, without the approval of which the extraction projects could become non-viable.

One common way of overcoming social and political opposition is economic “compensation”. In this respect, the Spanish Government is working on an amendment to the Hydrocarbons Law, raising the taxes received from production, which may benefit autonomous communities, municipalities and landowners.

But what’s with the boom in fracking? The fracking race has arrived after streamlining of its technique to obtain gas in the USA, with the aim of achieving supposed “energy independence”. The first endeavours to enjoy a certain “success” began more than 10 years ago in Texas and have spread rapidly to the other American states. The country has become an important producer of energy which, in combination with another series of conditioning factors, has led to a remarkable drop in price for users. The rebirth of petrol and gas production in USA using these extraction techniques is drawing a new version of the world energy map. Furthermore, consultants like IHS expect that more than 3 million jobs will be created in the USA around this industry by the end of the decade.

It comes as no surprise that, given this situation, there are collectives, institutions and academic sectors that defend these techniques. Nevertheless, different social groups, ecologists and studies warn that fracking represents a great deal of uncertainty as regards the underlying and environmental risks involved. In addition, they defend a change of energy model not dependent upon the exploitation of finite fossil resources.

In view of the risks denounced, in Europe fracking is a technique forbidden in countries such as France and Bulgaria. For its part, in the USA, New York stands as a state free from fracking for reasons of public and environmental health. The study commissioned by the city’s health department indicates that, although the figures are limited and the real risks of the practice are as yet to be established, the potential impact on the health of people and the quality of water and air may well be important. The city of Denton, Texas, has also forbidden fracking. When the extractions have come increasingly closer to homes, the complaints by residents and the social pressure due to uncertainty as regards the effects of the practice on the environment and water have led to its prohibition. In the USA controversy is rife and extends to Europe. The challenge, the debate, in any event, should focus on achieving a new model of energy founded on renewable energies, more economically and environmentally stable, and not on parameters of purely economic profit or struggles for power.

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