Shale gas ignites energy policy debate ahead of European elections

To frack or not to frack?

The high cost of energy for consumers and businesses means that the issue of shale gas – and the controversial ‘fracking’ technique used to extract the gas – will be one that could feature high on the agenda in next year’s European Parliament elections.

Across Europe, high electricity prices are putting household budgets under strain and putting an additional burden on manufacturing and services.

It is a common European challenge, and one on which candidates in the elections will have to take a position: is the future of energy renewables, nuclear, shale gas, or a combination of these? What about energy efficiency, or ‘green taxes’? Should priority be given to environmental protection or economic growth?

Shale gas has seen a boom in the United States, where the price of electricity is a quarter of that in Europe. Some argue that for a strong economy, Europe should follow the American model – investigate and exploit its own indigenous shale gas resources, reduce prices, and kick-start the recovery.

However, it is not that simple, and the political challenges are multiple.

Fracking is more than just a technique: it means using chemicals, sand and water to extract untapped gas from shale rocks. It requires massive investment and the likely environmental cost – from water pollution to toxic gas leakages – are still relatively unknown. The current decision-makers – and candidates – will have to weigh up the potential economic benefits and whether they outweigh the environmental impact.

The current debate on shale gas in Brussels has been polarising, and it is a debate that is replicated at a national, regional and local level. Citizens across Europe are already taking the lead in protesting against shale gas – and also advocating its exploitation as a way to bring down bills.

The tension between economic recovery and sustainable economic models is no longer just a Brussels-driven debate, but a regional and local reality.

With the European Commission due to publish a legislative package on shale gas by the end of 2013, newly-elected MEPs will be thrown immediately into a complicated and fractious political battle.

For or against, European citizens are likely to make their views known to candidates ahead of the elections making this issue – along with data protection and others – one of the key areas of pan-European debate in 2014.