WAGENFELD, Germany — Germany has one of the most robust green movements in the world, but economic pressures are tempting it to try something that critics say would harm the Earth: shale gas drilling.
Motivated by a rapid-fire increase in natural gas production in the United States, business leaders and some politicians in Germany say they need to act quickly to prevent the country’s industrial core from departing for places where energy costs just a fraction of the price. They worry that the country’s ambitious environmental goals are far less meaningful if the economy withers in achieving them.
Legislation under discussion would for the first time formalize permits for shale gas production in Germany, which is estimated to have enough reserves to feed natural gas demand for 20 years. But the plans have set off a backlash from many citizens, who are far more concerned than most Americans about the technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And in a country that wants to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, some say pouring investment into fossil fuels makes little sense.
Here in Wagenfeld, a tiny town with thatch-roofed houses and half-timbered barns in the agricultural flatlands of northwestern Germany, Exxon Mobil said last year that it was interested in drilling a test well in a marshy area on the outskirts. For Dirk Luetvogt, the owner of a fourth-generation mineral-water company that is one of the town’s largest employers, the possibility of chemicals leaching into the groundwater could put him out of business.
“We are sitting on Swiss cheese,” Luetvogt said, worrying that contaminants from the fracking process could spread into the pure water that is his raw material. “The risks are just too high.”
The push to tap Germany’s shale gas despite the country’s green goals is yet another unpredictable consequence of the rapid increase in the United States’ natural gas production, made possible through innovations in fracking, a method that forces a slurry of chemicals, sand and water at high pressure down a well to fracture shale and unlock the gas within. The U.S. price for natural gas in 2012 was just a quarter that of Europe’s, a gap that has opened in just a few years.
Russia, China and other energy powers also are exploring fracking as questions about the environmental consequences of the technique remain. Smaller countries such as Poland are seeking the technology for political reasons, hoping to break free from dependence on Russian gas. Still other countries, such as France, have imposed moratoriums as they seek to learn more about the risks of the practice.
Germany aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022, reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels and sharply ramp up the power it generates from renewable sources — an ambitious set of policies that it calls its energy transition. But many of the calculations about the costs of Germany’s environmental plans assumed that fossil fuels would grow scarcer and therefore more expensive. That would have meant that energy costs in other countries would have risen along with Germany’s, even if others were not pouring up to $1.3 trillion into green efforts in the coming decades, as Germany is doing.