Fracking is currently discussed very controversially – especially in Germany. While proponents of this technology – which implies to extract natural gas (or petroleum) by pressing chemical liquids into the ground – hope for falling energy prices and a gas boom as in the US, critics fear environmental risks such as the contamination of groundwater or earthquakes. Climate change as an argument is clearly neglected in this debate – yet it can be decisive argument against fracking.
Fracking means exploiting new fossil energy sources. Controlling climate change requires though that the world community abstains from using all available fossil energy reserves. Instead, renewable energy sources should generate most of future energy. The fact that it is profitable for private firms to extract shale gas via fracking is not a reason to do so. Especially since the external cost of fossil energy which fosters global warming are not included in such a calculation it is not necessarily profitable for society as a whole.
Proponents of fracking often argue that gas emits only half as much CO2 as coal and should thus play an important role in the transformation of the energy system. But direct emissions of shale gas are only one side of the coin: methane that is emitted in the fracking process is about 20 times as climate-damaging as CO2. As a result greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas are getting closer to those of coal and the climate friendliness of shale gas is significantly reduced.
Also the profitability of fracking is coming into question. Even in the US, where more than a third of gas production is now from fracking, the original enthusiasm is waning. One reason is that due to the increased gas supply gas prices have collapsed – to less than 60% of the historically high gas price of 2005. While this past high gas price has made fracking profitable, the current price decline provokes the opposite. In addition, doubts increase whether shale gas can indeed be recovered as easy and cheap as claimed by extraction firms and whether the availability is not much lower than originally believed. A study in “Nature” shows for example that the extraction rate of a drilling declines by 60 to 90 percent in the first year so that continuously more drillings are necessary to exploit the deposits.
Compared to the US German shale-gas deposits are rather low and can at very best meet German gas demand for 13 years. In the light of the latest US experiences the available amount will probably be much less. Environmental risks stressed by critics are mainly contaminated groundwater, environmental damages by toxic chemicals, earth quakes caused by fracking and in addition the of leakage of not sufficiently treated water into the environment as well as the risk of accidents in transporting, cleaning or storage activities. Such incidences have indeed occurred in the US in a mostly unregulated industry without any environmental restrictions. The US have learned from their mistakes and started to tighten regulations. German legislation is already much more restrictive so that the risks of fracking are significantly reduced. This makes climate change an even more important argument.
The bottom line of all this is: Why should it make sense to explore those fossil fuels with high expenses and not entirely free from environmental risks that are most difficult to extract? Why should one explore a fossil fuel with higher emissions than conventional sources? Since German demand for fossil energy is increasing only slowly or even declining in some locations, Germany should abstain from fracking. For the sake of the climate.