Columnists: Hans Nilsson, Fourfact

Published on: 13 May 2013

There is no such thing as unconventional hydrocarbons!

European leaders are worried about the competitiveness of Europe – and rightfully so. In particular they are worried about energy dependency and energy cost – and indeed they should be.  Unfortunately, their worry is not focused as much on the cost for energy as on the price of energy. Which, however, are two very different things.

The costs are certainly of importance for the competitiveness of European industry. An even more important aspect of how European companies can compete is however the quality of their products.

It happens often now that companies claim that energy is cheaper in other parts of the world, but they more seldom mention that the energy systems that deliver this energy are unstable, both in terms of security of delivery and in terms of vulnerability to disturbances. In the World Economic Forum Energy Architecture Performance Index , all European countries rank higher than e.g. the US and China.

The somewhat misguided worries become evident from a document that the European Commission has compiled for the Council meeting May 22. This document is appended to a letter from Commission President Barroso , where he argues that Europe needs “…a balanced, Union-wide approach on using the potential of unconventional hydrocarbons.”

But, Mr Barroso, there is no such thing as unconventional hydrocarbons!

There are only normal hydrocarbons and they are a threat to the climate. And now more of a threat than ever. I assume that Mr Barroso thinks that hydrocarbons are unconventional and different when they are extracted from shale.  And in a way he is right, but the difference is that they are worse!

They are worse because extraction of shale gas is extremely hazardous to the environment. Once they are extracted they turn out to be the very same old hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons  that should also be avoided. Using shale gas is to drive out the Devil with Belsebub.

Ironically the document describes the Estonian use of shale oil mining in rosy terms and rather as a blessing to the community, when it in fact is in many respects a dirty business that requires state aid to continue. And when the document refers to European studies, it leans on the “optimistic scenarios” from JRC , but refrains from mentioning the studies that deal with the environmental problems .

One of these studies  shows that shale gas extraction is a high risk venture on all counts of environmental impact, but also concludes in a laconic tone: “A decision on the exploration and production may not be based on an impact assessment. Public participation may not be guaranteed…”. The process on May 22 seems to verify this conclusion!

The document to the Council headed “Key energy challenges for Europe” is so biased it is almost standing upside down. It begins with saying that Europe is in a global race for energy sources. No, we are not! That was the race that brought us to the place where we are today climate-wise and that we want to change. If we are in a global race it should be to make use of the sources that we have on our own doorstep and that do not ruin our home. The Commission has already identified a tremendous potential for cost-efficient energy efficiency that remains un-exploited.

To mention a few of the arguments in the paper:

  1. It describes Europe in comparison to the US as being dependent on imported fossil fuels, whereas the US will become a net exporter of (shale) gas.
    The problem is not a priori the import but that the fuel is fossil. Europe is full of non-fossil solutions like energy efficiency, biofuel, wind, solar, waste etc. and we should concentrate on these rather than enter a race to the bottom.
  2. The paper says that since US gas prices have reduced the prices for coal, it has  made European energy industry use more coal.
    There is nothing that forces the industry to use more coal:. There might, however,  be a strong case to reduce the carbon emission allowances in Europe to make the energy industry behave more environmentally correct.
  3. It is noted that countries with few gas suppliers (read Russia) have higher prices than countries with more suppliers.
    Indeed, diversification is necessary but is diversification from hydrocarbon to hydrocarbon really a solution? Would not energy efficiency and reduction of import dependence by using less  be a more proper response?
  4. The document worries about the prices and the energy bills.
    Well, bills should be the real worry since they are the prices multiplied with the volume of energy. With energy efficiency improvements the volume is reduced and if energy efficiency is carried out to the huge cost-effective potential Europe has, it will also have an impact on prices at the same time it reduces energy bills.

Energy efficiency is, as so often before, the elephant in the room that no one wants to see.

Dear Mr Barroso and Dear Council members - Dare take on the real challenge which can go far beyond what the present directive aims at and dare do it NOW. Let Energy Efficiency be the European response to shale gas.


Other columns by Hans Nilsson