Gas fracking in Germany as an alternative?

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In Germany, large gas deposits have so far remained unused. The governing party FDP therefore wants to put the previously banned fracking to the test. A DW talk about the risks and opportunities of fracking.

Fracking in the USA ( Colorado)

DW: Russia is turning off the gas supply. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) from overseas should plug the worst supply gaps. Huge gas reserves are suspected in Germany, which could be obtained by fracking. But that has been banned for five years for reasons of environmental protection. As a geologist, what is your opinion on the subject of fracking in Germany?

Christoph Hilgers: Well, fracking is a method used to extract natural gas worldwide. And that has also been done in Germany since the 1960s. It has been fracked more than 300 times. And if you do it right, then the risk is also close to zero. Nothing has ever happened with fracking in Germany.

How big are the gas deposits in this country? It is said that the German gas requirement could be covered for years?

In Germany we need about 86 billion cubic meters per year. The suspected gas resources are estimated at around 1.36 trillion cubic meters, so many times more. This could make a significant contribution to Germany's supply of energy and raw materials with domestic natural gas over the coming decades. But because of the ban on fracking, it is not exactly clear how large the gas reserves of shale gas actually are and how much can be extracted.

So there is still a huge need for exploration. How long would it take before gas production could begin?

The need for exploration is manageable because one makes advance calculations as to where which rocks are and what temperatures they are exposed to underground. There are already models and predictions as to where there is an increased potential for shale gas and where not. In general, we have two types of resources in Germany: On the one hand, the so-called dense gas deposits. There, the gas is trapped in a sandstone underground and can be extracted using the fracking methods that were used in Germany for 50 years until the fracking moratorium of 2011. And then there's shale gas, which has been developed in the United States and other countries for several decades.

There was a big turning point in the USA: The USA was a net energy importer. Now the US is one of the world's largest exporters because of technical innovation that has enabled them to drill and frack these shale gas reservoirs since the 2000s. And we have shale gas here too. The technologies are also there. One would only need to invest a few years to delineate resource-rich shale gas areas that could subsequently be mined as deposits.

If I understand you correctly: no matter how you feel about fracking, it wouldn't help us anyway in an acute emergency?

Fracking shale gas couldn't help us until next winter because exploration and extraction takes time needed and we have guidelines, environmental specifications and approval processes. We have to fall back on what we have and have shut down. But the question is how long the emergency will last.

You also have to differentiate between the gas in the sandstone, which was fracked, and that in the shale. When it comes to sandstone, the industry actually knows relatively well where there is still potential in Germany. Because they have already been explored, but not fully lifted because of the fracking ban in Germany. The extraction of natural gas from fracked shale is prohibited by law in Germany.

Fracking is used in other countries, for example in the USA. We might be able to get some LNG gas from there in the near future. But that won't be enough because, as an industrialized country, we import a lot of natural gas. Fracking is also used in geothermal energy. The last frack in geothermal energy, I think, in Germany was last year.

Christoph Hilgers, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

So fracking is allowed to extract geothermal heat?

Exactly. In order to promote geothermal energy locally via fracking, you also have to follow strict approval processes. Deep geothermal drilling involves drilling at a depth similar to that of natural gas, and often into the same type of rock. And also with geothermal energy, the mobility of the rock at a depth of several kilometers is increased in some drillings through targeted breaking of the rock. Salty water is pumped and the groundwater levels in the upper layers of the earth are protected by cemented steel pipes, as is the case with natural gas. The difference is that with geothermal energy you pump salty warm water and send it back underground and in the other case natural gas. Incidentally, geothermal energy has so far contributed around 0.6 percent to Germany's primary energy consumption, but it has potential in the heating sector.

Let's come to environmental protection, which plays a central role in the discussion about fracking. Do you think the risks are manageable?

Yes, the environmental risks are manageable and justifiable. In the last 20 years, worldwide  fracked a hundred thousand times. The technology is being used successfully in other countries and would also be strictly monitored and controlled by the authorities here. The LNG gas from the USA, some of which might help us through the winter, is also produced using this technology. And climate protection must also be taken into account, because the capture and safe underground storage of CO2 has been carried out successfully for several decades, for example in Norway. The use of the separated carbon in the cycle also comes to the fore – keyword CCU (separation, transport and subsequent use of carbon).

Economics Minister Robert Habeck says he would not support fracking simply because it could not help us at the moment. Others say it would be far too much effort for a bridging technology into the regenerative age. How do you see it?

If the energy transition is implemented in Germany as planned, it will still take decades. It not only needs electricity, but also molecules such as hydrogen. However, the 77 percent of natural gas, oil and coal as primary energy in Germany and the associated infrastructure cannot be replaced overnight and the federal government wants to end the purchase of Russian natural gas quickly.

Politicians must assess whether a prolonged emergency develops and whether domestic natural gas increases security of supply. The global demand for energy from natural gas is increasing and natural gas is also an important raw material for other areas. For example, nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas. And natural gas is also a raw material in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, for example for the plastic polyethylene, for thermal insulation, textile fibers in sportswear and for medicines. We will not be able to do without natural gas anytime soon.

The interviewer was Klaus Ulrich.

Christoph Hilgers is a professor of geology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – KIT. In addition to various other activities, he is stv. Chairman of the Professional Association of German Geoscientists BDG.