"Fracking will not be a big thing in Germany," stressed Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks. "We have managed to put in place extensive bans in line with the wishes of the German people. Protecting our drinking water reserves and our natural landscapes clearly has precedence over economic interests," she added in a statement on the entry into force of the package of legislation and regulations.
No time limit on ban
The agreement provides for a ban on what is termed unconventional fracking until 2021 at the earliest. Thereafter it will be up to the German Bundestag to decide whether or not these regulations should remain in place. That is a comparatively strict agreement, because unless the German Bundestag takes specific action at that stage, the ban will remain in place.
The regulations contained in the package
To ensure greater transparency and improve the way the general public are involved, an initial ordinance came into force on 6 August 2016. It introduced environmental impact assessments and dealt with mining standards and requirements governing the use of fracking technology and deep drilling operations. It imposed mandatory environmental impact assessments and regulated the way "formation water", the water contained in the pore spaces of the rocks, is handled.
The entire package also includes other rules and regulations relating to the use of fracking technology and other measures connected to the exploitation of natural gas and oil.
- The Law on Changes to Water Protection and Conservations Regulations in order to Prohibit Procedures using Fracking Technology and to Minimise Risks, and
- The Law to Extend Liability for Mining Operations to Borehole Mining and to Subterranean Caverns (cavities), which regulates issues relating to liability.
Four exploratory boreholes will be permitted
To close gaps in our current knowledge about unconventional fracking methods, a total of only four exploratory boreholes may be drilled nationwide in Germany in shale, clay or marl formations, or in coal seams. "These exploratory measures are designed to investigate the impacts of fracking on the environment, in particular underground and on the water regime," Barbara Hendricks explained. Fracking at depths of less than 3,000 metres will not be allowed in shale and coal formations.
The research projects will only be permitted in compliance with strict regulations and with the authorisation of the pertinent federal state government. This will ensure that in those states which have reservations about fracking, the option exists at political level to refuse to issue permits for unconventional fracking projects.
The status of fracking technology
Fracking technology has been used in Germany since the 1960s to extract natural gas from conventional reserves (including sandstone and carbonate stones). Currently, about one third of the natural gas produced in Germany comes from reserves of this sort and is tapped by fracking.
Unconventional fracking is the term used to describe operations to tap shale gas and coal gas reserves found in clay, shale, marl and coal formations using horizontal drilling techniques. This technology may only be used for scientific research purposes in Germany, in compliance with strict regulations.
Stricter rules, more protected areas
A mandatory environmental impact assessment is now to be introduced for all fracking operations to identify and extract natural oil and gas. This also applies to drilling operations designed to explore and tap geothermal energy, where inputs are used that could contaminate water resources or where the projects are situated in an area prone to earthquakes.
Strict regulations have applied to conventional fracking projects since the 1960s. Area-specific bans on fracking take into account, for instance, mineral water reserves, medicinal water sources and extraction points for water used in food production. The establishment of fracking operations is also banned in conservation areas and Natura 2000 areas in order to protect these particularly fragile environments.
What does fracking actually involve?
Fracking techniques use hydraulic pressure to fracture deep-rock formations via a borehole. The process involves injecting what is known as a fracking fluid (a mixture of water, sand and chemicals) at high pressure into the rock formations containing the gas reserves. Gases and liquids can then flow through the cracks produced and thus be extracted.
Priority is to protect the environment and human health
The fracking regulations package aims to protect the environment and human health from the risks involved in the use of this technology. At the same time, safety and environmental standards for the traditional extraction of natural gas, oil and geothermal power have also been tightened, and European standards translated into national regulations.
An independent commission of experts is to ensure scientific monitoring of the exploratory measures on behalf of the German government, as well as evaluating the measures and reporting to the German Bundestag.