Shale Gas in Germany: Game Changer or Risky Technology

Shale Gas in Germany: Game Changer or Risky Technology

Author: Vera Koester

The shale gas boom in the US has jumbled the energy markets and the costs for raw materials for the chemical industry. Which potential has the development of unconventional resources in Germany? What are the risks associated with fracking? Where is more research needed? What is in for the German chemical industry?

These were themes and issues discussed at the 7th Energy Colloquium of the Chemical Societies, organized jointly by the Deutsche Bunsen-Gesellschaft (DBG; German Bunsen Society for Physical Chemistry), DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e.V. (Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology), Deutsche Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Erdöl, Erdgas und Kohle (DGMK; German Society for Petroleum and Coal Science and Technology), Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh; German Chemical Society), Verband der Chemischen Industrie (VCI; German Association of Chemical Industry), and VDI-Gesellschaft Verfahrenstechnik und Chemieingenieurwesen (VDI-GVC; Association of German Engineers and Society for Chemical Engineering) in Frankfurt, Germany.


Future of Energy

The worldwide energy demand increases significantly. According to the latest Energy Outlook of ExxonMobil, in 2040 about 9 billion people will live on Earth, the world economy will have grown by 130 %, and the demand for energy will have risen by 35 %. Without improving energy efficiency, the demand would not only rise by 35 %, but would more than double.

Oil will continue to be the worldwide number one energy carrier in 2040 with a predicted annual growth of 0.8 % from 2010 to 2040. It is followed by gas (+ 1.6 %), coal (+ 0.1 %), biomass (+ 0.5 %), nuclear (+ 2.3 %), solar/wind/biofuels (+ 5.8 %), hydro (+ 1.8 %).

Due to new scientific knowledge and technical developments, the estimated global recoverable resources of oil and gas continue to grow. Thus, the diversity of oil and gas production will increase. Unconventional reservoirs will include tight oil, oil from deep water production, oil sands, natural gas liquids (NGL), and shale gas.


Natural Gas in Germany

Also in Germany, natural gas will most probably continue to play an important role in the energy mix. Reasons for this are its clean combustion thus offering a reliable and environmentally friendly energy source, its abundant use for heating in every second German household, and its great importance as a raw material for the chemical industry.

Germany is not exploring unconventional gas reserves. The production of natural gas from conventional reservoirs in Germany meets currently about one-tenth of the annual requirements with a decreasing tendency of about 1 % a year. This increases Germany’s dependence on imports. On the contrary, an increasing gas production in the USA is seen. In the medium term, the US will be able to meet its demand for natural gas mainly from their own resources. With this balanced supply/demand situation, it can affect a very competitive pricing. Whereas Americas and Africa will be able to meet their demands, Europe and Asia Pacific will demand large quantities of oil and gas, which Russia and the Middle East can supply.

According to a study of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (GBR; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe), the amount of natural gas from German mudstone that is recoverable with current technology is estimated at 320 – 2030 billion m³. The magnitude of this non-conventional natural gas significantly exceeds Germany’s conventional natural gas reserves and resources of approximately 100 billion m3 (including tight gas). These unconventional reserves would amount to more than 20 times of Germany’s annual consumption of natural gas.
Reserves in Germany are primarily found around Hanover, in the Upper Rhine Valley, between Stuttgart and Munich, and before the island of Rugen.

Worldwide, Germany is in 27th place in terms of shale gas reserves. China, Argentina, and the USA have the largest deposits. Therefore, shale gas will not be a game changer in Germany, as it is in the US. However, it has the potential to mitigate the decline of conventional mining.


Safety Aspects

The GBR has investigated the potential of shale gas and the environmental aspects of its production from a geoscientific perspective in the NIKO project. Overall, the results confirm national and international studies: Activities at the surface and inadequate wellbore integrity represent the main risks for contamination of groundwater. Reliable monitoring of the wellbore integrity and safekeeping of old wells is most important. Potential contamination paths in connection with the hydraulic stimulation deep underground, the fracking in the strict sense, are in the long run regarded as unlikely.

The chemicals used in fracking fluids often take the center of public debates. A large number of chemicals used in the US is disclosed on the database However, some additives remain proprietary and minor contributions (< 0.1 %) need not be declared on safety data sheets.

Further research is needed according to Dr. Martin Elsner, Helmholtz Zentrum München, Neuherberg, Germany, and Head of the Expert Group on Chemicals in Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas Exploitation of the Water Chemical Society of the GDCh, to answer questions such as: Which new substances are formed in the subsurface during hydraulic fracturing operations? Which substances of geological origin merge at the surface in the mixture of the flowback and formation water? How can this wastewater be treated or disposed of? What happens in case of an accident? Here he says independent research is essential.

Many people think that sufficient research has been done in the laboratory and that now pilot projects are needed for further research. “Without the use and testing of the technology it cannot be further developed”, said, for example, Professor Mohod Amro, TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Germany. “Adapting the experience of others cannot replace own experience.” However, safety worries remain high in Germany, although the country has the highest safety standards. Other countries have gained a lot of experience in the meantime.

Olaf Martins, ExxonMobil Central Europe Holding GmbH, Berlin, Germany, asks why chemical-free fracking is so important to the public. “The product itself, which is extracted from the wells, is something we better not get into our mouth. Therefore, it is more important to make sure that there are no leaks, from the ground to the gas station, than to exclude all chemicals from the fracking fluid.” Such a view favors an integrated approach for safe and clean gas and oil production rather than just looking at chemicals.

It remains uncertain whether fracking will gain public acceptance and governmental permits in Germany.


Also of Interest

How does hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling make natural gas trapped in shale rock formations financially feasible and accessible…


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