Fear of fracking

Fuel is usually found in unattractive places. Geologists discovered the biggest oil and natural gas reserves in the deserts of the Middle East and beneath the permafrost of Siberia. Countries in temperate Central Europe, on the other hand, have only modest reserves. One of them lies some 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) beneath the surface in Rotenburg/Wümme, an administrative district in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony.

Using a method known as “fracking,” Germany could exploit domestic sources to meet its natural gas needs for 20 years. But safety worries have prompted government authorities to refrain from granting the permits that companies need to use the controversial technique.

ExxonMobil, which operates a well called “Bötersen Z11” uses “induced hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking” for short.

ExxonMobil plans to inject about 350,000 liters (92,500 gallons) of water, mixed with a cocktail of chemicals, into the well under high pressure. The liquid is supposed to penetrate into the rock at the bottom of the pipe and trigger a long-term loosening effect. Hair-line fractures will create a network of tiny channels from which natural gas can escape for at least 15 years, according to ExxonMobil estimates.

But what ExxonMobil still lacks is official permission to do this. The state mining agency has been sitting on the company’s application for the last year, hesitant to move forward with its approval.

“Unfortunately, fracking has become a scary word,” says Dieter Sieber, a mining engineer and fracking expert at ExxonMobil. A cart decorated with pamphlets from a local citizens’ initiative is parked at the entrance to the drilling site. The group aims to “protect God’s creation,” and one of its signs proclaims: “Stop Fracking!”

The public reservations and protests are coming at a surprisingly late point. As a method to increase the yields of hydrocarbon deposits, fracking has been in use for almost 50 years. In Germany, it has been instrumental in preventing domestic natural gas production from drying up altogether. Very few Germans are aware that, until the 1980s, almost a quarter of the natural gas being burned in Germany came from domestic sources. Although it’s still about 12 percent today, that number is declining by about 1 percent a year.

The deposits that have already been discovered are almost exhausted. About 300 wells have been fracked in Germany since the 1960s. Without imports, more than three-quarters of which come from Russia, Norway and the Netherlands, Germany would soon find itself without natural gas — if there weren’t another alternative, that is.

In May, Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) published a study concluding that there are up to 2.3 trillion cubic meters (81 trillion cubic feet) of technically recoverable natural gas under German soil, primarily in the northern state of Lower Saxony and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. This would amount to more than 20 times Germany’s annual consumption of natural gas.

The reserves are in deposits that are described as “unconventional,” consisting of shale and coal formations, which are the primary “source rocks” of hydrocarbons. They were long considered unexploitable because they are substantially denser than “conventional” deposits found in more porous sandstone. The coveted fuel simply doesn’t flow out of shale formations — which is where fracking comes in.

Fracking is now proving to be a key technology for extracting oil and gas from shale formations. In Germany, the natural gas reserves that could be exploited in this manner would have “the potential to make up for declines in production in recent years,” explains geophysicist Dieter Franke, a geophysicist who heads the BGR’s oil and gas geology department. In light of the sheer magnitude of proven reserves, this could be seen as a conservative estimate.

Since the mid-1990s, Americans have been far more aggressive and active when it comes to fracking. Geologists estimate that — after China and, presumably, Russia — the United States has the third-largest shale natural gas reserves on Earth, or about 20 times as much as Germany. The United States is exploiting these reserves on a large scale and even hopes to use fracking to end its dependence on gas imports.

Now the United States is also taking a similar approach with shale oil. Thanks to fracking, the Midwestern state of North Dakota already produces more than half a million barrels of oil from the Bakken shale formation. As a result, this year, the state surpassed Alaska in oil production for the first time. According to a forecast by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), oil-tanker traffic to North America could very well be eliminated by 2035.

In contrast to the United States, which once met its own oil requirements and is now enthusiastic about returning to this status, government agencies in Europe are tentative. France, which is assumed to have the largest unconventional gas reserves in Western Europe, has yet to issue a single fracking permit. German authorities have only permitted isolated test fracking. The last fracking operation in German bedrock was conducted in late July 2011 — also by ExxonMobil — at the “Buchhorst T12” site, a conventional gas deposit in Bundsandstein, a type of colored sandstone that lies below large parts of Western and Central Europe.

Horror stories from the United States, an El Dorado for companies engaged in fracking, have discredited the technology. A documentary film about the practice showed a fireball emerging from a faucet, a result of the presence of methane in drinking water. People are starting to realize that pumping 13 million liters of chemical-laced water into a hole can have unpleasant consequences.