I see that Russia’s national gas company, Gazprom, is warning Europeans about the environmental risks of shale gas development. Aside from the hypocrisy stemming from a Russian legacy of environmental disregard that rivals the worst excesses committed anywhere, along with the likelihood of Gazprom profiting if it can deter competition from proliferating shale drilling technologies like hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a “fracking”) and horizontal drilling, this looks quite clever. Environmental concerns–exaggerated or not–are the Achilles heel of shale drilling. We’ve seen how how effective environmental opposition to fracking has been in places like New York state. The mere fact of Gazprom’s warning about shale drilling doesn’t constitute a winning argument either for or against the practice, but the reasons they would be moved to comment might shed further light on shale’s potential, which they publicly dismiss as a temporary phenomenon.
If Russia’s leaders have anything to fear from the development of shale gas in Europe, much of the blame rests with their own behavior. Gazprom alone has access to the largest conventional natural gas reserves on earth–more than the entire natural gas reserves of Iran–and it has built the pipelines necessary to make Russia the dominant gas supplier to Europe. The latest addition to that network, the Nordstream pipeline–a source of some controversy of its own a few years back–opened just last month. They are also almost certainly correct that European shale gas would be more expensive than Russian gas, at least initially, if you ignore its value in providing Europe with some much-needed leverage with a supplier that hasn’t hesitated to play hardball in the past, to the point of cutting off gas shipments during contractual disputes–in winter.
Since Gazprom’s credibility on the economic and commercial merits of shale gas development is effectively nil, it makes perfect sense that they would pick up on the environmental arguments that have slowed development elsewhere and in some cases brought it to a standstill. The effectiveness of these arguments is enhanced because they contain a grain of truth: Like all other industrial-scale activities, shale gas drilling is not risk-free. It is possible for a drilling contractor to fail to cement a well properly, creating a chance of contaminating nearby water wells, although some presumed instances of this turned out to have other causes. It’s also possible for a driller to mishandle fracking fluid or produced water above ground and affect surface water supplies. Then there are the allegations that leaking methane from shale gas wells negates any emissions benefits and renders the gas at least as bad as coal for climate change–never mind that these claims have been comprehensively examined and disproved.
Although I expect debate on these points to continue for some time, I believe that ultimately shale gas drilling will proceed on a large scale in the US and globally, with some minor tweaks to a regulatory system that already does a pretty good job of monitoring the activity and weeding out those producers that aren’t diligent enough about protecting the public and environment. I would also argue that this scenario must be exactly what Gazprom’s management believes will happen in Europe, absent a lot more support for those who oppose shale gas for a variety of reasons, including its competition with the more expensive forms of renewable energy. That doesn’t automatically make European opponents of shale drilling convenient tools for the resource nationalism of an increasingly authoritarian neighbor, but it certainly ought to make them exercise great caution before entering into any “strange bedfellows” alliances with as self-interested a party as Russia’s state energy complex.