Hardly a substitute for Putin's gas: fracking? 'No quick fix' for energy crisis

In the fight against the energy crisis, the federal government is looking for alternatives.

Hardly a substitute for Putin's gas: fracking? 'No quick fix' for energy crisis

In the fight against the energy crisis, the federal government is looking for alternatives. Unused gas reserves are still slumbering under Germany. They could be squeezed out by unconventional fracking. The introduction of the controversial method would take years, says the chair of the Bundestag expert commission.

Germany is struggling for every cubic meter of gas, at least since Russia stopped sending natural gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. In this country, although own gas is promoted, but now not much. Last year, 5.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas were produced in Germany, mainly in Lower Saxony. That covers just around five percent of the annual requirement in Germany.

But deep in the earth there are gas reserves that have not yet been tapped. "If we now only look at the estimate of the gas reserves in unconventional deposits, then there is an average of around 800 billion cubic meters," says Charlotte Krawczyk in the ntv podcast "Learned again". She chairs the Fracking Expert Commission, which was set up to advise the German Bundestag in 2017.

Unconventional deposits are rock strata such as clay rock or coal seam rock in which gas is firmly trapped. Exactly how large the gas supply really is deep underground can only be found out by means of test drilling. Possible gas deposits are mainly in northern Germany and in North Rhine-Westphalia, smaller ones in southern Germany.

The gas could be extracted by fracking. This describes the process in which gas is forced out of the rock strata with the help of pressure, water and chemicals. Small cracks are created in the rock. This releases the gas and it can be piped up with drill lines.

A method that can trigger earthquakes, water pollution and methane emissions. That is why fracking in these unconventional deposits has been banned in Germany since 2017. "You have to be very clear that every intervention in the subsoil and thus also the extraction of raw materials from the subsoil has consequences," says Charlotte Krawczyk. "Consequently, risks always remain."

In Germany there is no experience with unconventional fracking. However, conventional fracking has been widespread for decades. It has been used to extract natural gas since the 1960s, especially in Lower Saxony. Around 300 fracking wells have been drilled so far. In conventional fracking, natural gas is mainly extracted from sandstone. This method is allowed, subject to conditions. However, the production volumes are declining.

The technique for unconventional fracking is a little different. It could be tested with test drilling. A maximum of four scientific test wells are permitted under the current law. The industry would have to apply for it. But she has returned her licenses and is not planning any new applications.

For the possible start of fracking in unconventional deposits, the expert commission proposes a test run. "For example, it can be tested how high the pressures can be with which the rock has to be stimulated," explains Charlotte Krawczyk in the podcast. These would have to be higher than, for example, in conventional deposits. In addition, the geology would have to be examined in advance. "Only then can it be estimated what effects are actually caused by this intervention."

You could draw on the experience of the past few years, says Charlotte Krawczyk. "You know pretty well from other wells for conventional deposits how wells are drilled and how well sites have to be secured and which fluids can be used."

Unconventional fracking is controversial because of the many risks, including for the environment. One of the criticisms is that methane can be released from the boreholes, which contributes to global warming.

Another argument is the risk of earthquakes. As the rock is broken up by pressure, smaller earthquakes can occur. However, these are very unlikely due to increased safety regulations in Germany, says geophysicist Marco Bohnhoff, head of the Geomechanics and Scientific Drilling department at the Geoforschungszentrum in Potsdam, in the "Learned again" podcast. Noticeable seismicity is not impossible. But the processes can be curbed with scientific support, says Bohnhoff.

It is also criticized that the fracking fluid contains not only water but also potentially toxic chemicals. The companies do not have to say exactly which ones. Through cracks, the chemical mixture can pollute the groundwater over time. Charlotte Krawczyk says that there have long been environmentally friendly alternatives to the chemicals. "This is also common practice, because it is not permitted to introduce substances that are hazardous to groundwater into the subsoil." Groundwater law in Germany is well advanced in this respect.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine there have been repeated calls for a reassessment of fracking in Germany. The Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, for example, wants to check whether there are new and environmentally friendly methods. The FDP is also for it.

Even if fracking were an option - to implement it quickly, if possible this winter, it is not. "Introducing the fracking of unconventional reservoirs would take several years, so it's not a quick fix," emphasizes Charlotte Krawczyk. The Water Resources Act prohibits fracking of unconventional deposits on an industrial scale. "That means there needs to be a change in the law. Sometimes that can happen very quickly, but it takes time." After a change, companies could apply for concessions. But the responsible authorities also needed time for this, says the expert.

For the time being, Germany is therefore dependent on gas from abroad. Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck is against fracking, but among other things he wants to import more liquid gas from the USA soon. Most of this comes from fracking deposits. Three LNG terminals are scheduled to start up at the turn of the year.

Fracking has been common in the United States since the 1940s. It has boomed since the beginning of this millennium. But even there the mood is changing. The US state of California plans to ban unconventional fracking by 2024.

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