Fear of Fracking Germany Balks on Natural Gas Bonanza

Fear of Fracking Germany Balks on Natural Gas Bonanza by Christian Wüst, October 5, 2012, Der Spiegel (Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan; article originally appeared in German in issue 40/2012 (October 1, 2012)
The most recent well that was drilled into the natural gas field there is called “Bötersen Z11.” The site, located next to a federal highway near the port city of Bremen, occupies about a hectare (2.5 acres) of asphalt-covered land surrounded by a green wire fence. A pipe about as thick as a tree trunk is protruding from the middle of the site, but nothing is coming out of it. There isn’t enough pressure in the field the pipe is sticking out of, and ExxonMobil, which operates the well, isn’t surprised. Even during the planning stages, “Bötersen Z11” was a candidate for a process that engineering geologists refer to as “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.

German authorities have only permitted isolated test fracking. ExxonMobil, for example, was only allowed to conduct three experimental fracking operations in February 2008 at the “Damme 3” well north of Osnabrück, in northwestern Germany. Close to 13,000 cubic meters of fluid were injected into the wells. “We demonstrated there that fracking can be done in shale rock, and that the expansion (of the fracking fluid) corresponds to the simulations,” says Sieber, the ExxonMobil engineer. Although it has provided this insight, “Damme 3” has yet to generate any profits. To be able to make money from extracting gas from the well, ExxonMobil would have to inject more fracking fluid into the formations that contain natural gas — but it hasn’t been granted the permits to do so. …

People are starting to realize that pumping 13 million liters of chemical-laced water into a hole can have unpleasant consequences.What happens in the bowels of the Earth when the hydraulic stimulator fractures the rock? Can natural gas, fracking fluid or formation water containing hazardous substances seep into and contaminate the groundwater? These are extremely urgent questions, and it’s astonishing that we are only now beginning to systematically search for answers. In early September, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA) published an initial report with a sobering conclusion: “In summary, we conclude that a great deal of the fundamental information needed to make a valid assessment of these risks is still missing.” For regulators, who must ultimately decide whether fracking should be allowed, such a conclusion is as unhelpful as it is for the oil companies that want to use the fracking technology.

ExxonMobil, the leading natural gas producer in Germany, is paving its way to unconventional deposits with slick PR efforts. The company is already running TV ads in which its managers insist that they are also concerned about clean drinking water. ExxonMobil has also set up a website called Erdgassuche-in-deutschland.de, or “The Search for Natural Gas in Germany,” to emphasize its transparency. The site even lists the ingredients in the last fracking cocktail used at the “Buchhorst T12” well.

Occupational medicine experts have classified substances like tetraethylenepentamine as being toxic to groundwater and corrosive. ExxonMobil points out that the concentrations of such chemicals in fracking fluid are very low. “If you were to drink more than three or four glasses of fracking fluid,” says Sieber, “the worst that would happen to you would be the sort of diarrhea you’d get from drinking castor oil.” But it’s millions of liters of fracking fluid — and not just three or four glasses — that are injected into a well. And the government agency with the power to approve or prohibit the practice isn’t the Environment Ministry, but rather the mining authority in each of Germany’s 16 federal states. For Lower Saxony, where Germany’s most promising candidates for fracking are located, it’s the State Authority for Mining, Energy and Geology (LBEG), based in Hanover. Ulrich Windhaus heads the agency’s permit-granting department. “We have taken a very careful look at the situation with fracking,” he explains, “and not just since the most recent debates.” The unique problem in Germany, Windhaus adds, is that the shale formations containing the gas are closer to the surface than most conventional deposits, which means they are much closer to groundwater levels and, in some cases, even within the same stratum. Some shale formations in Lower Saxony reach almost to the surface. For this reason alone, says Windhaus, “a more comprehensive analysis has to be conducted.” ExxonMobil doesn’t disagree. [Emphasis added]

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