The Ukraine crisis has come as a godsend to the shale gas cheerleaders in Europe.
Russian natural gas exports to Western and Central Europe, half of which flow through Ukraine, are unreliable, they argue; we need our own gas and – wouldn't you know it – we're sitting on an underground ocean of energy. Our policy should be drill, baby, drill and if we turn the continent into a pincushion, we will be energy independent and competitive with the Americans, who have so much gas they're practically giving it away.
On paper, it's a compelling argument. Parts of Europe, from England to Poland, are sitting on vast amounts of shale gas. On Monday, even Scotland, which may decide in September to break away from the United Kingdom, learned from the British Geological Survey that it has enough shale gas to supply all of Britain's gas needs for 30 years. That's good news for Scotland, whose North Sea oil and gas fields are running out of puff.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, have been pumping up the British shale gas story as if it were the greatest thing since deep-fried Mars bars. Noting that the United States has become a magnet for energy-intensive industries, like the chemical makers, Mr. Cameron has talked about "reshoring" – jobs returning from overseas – if Britain were to get into the shale game. The country's massive energy-payments deficit would disappear and the use of carbon dioxide-belching coal would plummet, along with Britons' energy bills. Europeans generally pay three times as much for gas as Americans and Canadians. And if Britain drills, you can bet that France and Germany would not be far behind. Those two countries wouldn't tolerate handing Britain a massive energy advantage.
The European drilling spree would revive Europe's economy in the same way it did in the United States. And it would allow Europe to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a hike. In the past decade, Russia has cut gas supplies to Ukraine three times, the previous time in mid-June. In 2009, the gas contract dispute between the two countries created gas shortages in 18 European Union countries in the dead of winter.
It's all sheer fantasy. There will never be an American-style shale gas "revolution" in Britain or anywhere else in Europe. For all the talk about gas galore right under the feet of the British, the French and the Germans, not a single commercial shale well is pumping away in those countries (Italy is evidently shale-free, although it does have a lot of pumpable black oil in the south).
How can this be, given the size of the shale resource and the high price for European energy? You would think the British would sink a drill through the floor of Buckingham Palace if they knew there was gas underneath.
Geology doesn't explain the missing revolution. Blame it on the law, population densities and a relatively strong environmental movement.
The law is the biggie. In the United States, a landowner owns the rights to the minerals to the centre of the earth. The shale bonanzas in the U.S. Midwest and in Texas have turned thousands of farmers into overnight millionaires, or "shaleonaires." They lease land to the driller, or take a royalty on production, or both. Beats getting up at 5 in the morning to milk cows.
In Britain and in most of Europe, no such subsurface rights exist. In Britain, the wannabe drillers, such as Cuadrilla, plan to buy favour by paying off the local councils, but that's not the same as cash payments to landowners. The minimum requirement for a U.S.-style shale rush is changing the law to allow landowners to cash in.
Concentrations of humans make any driller's life difficult. The population densities in Europe are five to 10 times higher than those in the United States.
Slapping a drill rig in or next to a village, plus connecting it to a pipeline and stuffing the local roads with trucks to bring in equipment and beefy guys with tattoos isn't going to happen.
Finally, environmental laws are tougher in Europe than in North America. In France, fracking – the use of chemicals and high-pressure water to crack open the hydrocarbon-bearing shale – is banned. Ditto Bulgaria. The fear is polluted groundwater, and more than a few horror stories in the United States support the view that fracking is not without environmental costs.
The attempts at shale drilling in Europe have pretty much gone nowhere. Poland was supposed to emerge as the first big European shale market, but it hasn't worked out. Some energy giants, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Italy's Eni SpA, have pulled out of Poland because the geology and the legislation are not conducive to a drilling bonanza.
The United States and Canada will be happy that the European shale revolution is on hold. Exports of gas, in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), to Europe are inevitable. What Europe needs in an energy policy. It doesn't have one.
There's an incoherent mishmash of national programs that range from Germany's vow to phase out nuclear energy (and replace it with what?) to the pursuit of renewable energy whose subsidies are unaffordable to governments.
Shale is being billed as the cure-all in some countries, notably Britain. Just because it exists doesn't mean it can be produced.