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Story by European Voice

The European Commission’s attempts to gain an overview of shale-gas extraction and exploration in the EU have not been greeted enthusiastically by most member states. Asked to provide information about shale-gas activities, many member states submitted responses that were incomplete, evasive, and, in some instances, appear to be misleading.

The Commission has been under pressure from environmental groups and some member states to come up with legislation covering the process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, used to extract unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale gas.

The United States has revolutionised its energy landscape with the exploitation of newly discovered shale reserves, and several member states, notably Poland and the United Kingdom, want to explore the potential of shale reserves. But other countries, including France and Bulgaria, object to the practice on environmental grounds, and have banned fracking.

Although the Commission drew up draft legislation on shale gas, at the beginning of 2014 it decided against taking a legislative approach and instead issued a set of guidelines for member states to follow.

The Commission also said it would develop a ‘scoreboard’ to ensure that member states are sticking to the guidelines. If the Commission finds that member states are not following the recommendations, the EU could make them legally binding in 2016.

Member states had until the end of last year to submit their responses to a questionnaire. The scoreboard, which will be issued in August, will be based on their responses.

However, the responses, published by the Commission on Friday (27 February), are largely incomplete and in some cases contain what appears to be false information.

Member states were given the option to respond to only one question, rather than complete the entire questionnaire. Of the 28 member states, 18 chose not to fill in the entire questionnaire.

The one question that all countries responded to was: “Did you grant or do you plan to grant authorisations for the exploration or production of hydrocarbons that may require the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing?”

Five countries said ‘yes’ (Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and the UK); six countries answered ‘possibly’ (Austria, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Portugal and Spain); the remaining 17 countries answered ‘no’.

But three of the member states that answered ‘no’ – France, Ireland and Sweden – have issued authorisations in the past. France has issued more than 60 permits for fracking, but the country now has a national ban on fracking that prevents these permits being used. Ireland has granted authorisation to the firm Tamboran, and Sweden has granted authorisation to Shell.

Several of the countries that answered ‘possibly’ are also known to have issued permits. One of these is Germany, which is in the midst of a debate about what constitutes hydraulic fracturing. Germany is one of the countries that answered only the Commission’s first question.

Antoine Simone, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe, said that the member states’ responses make for “frightening reading”.

“Countries are able to pick and choose which fracking safety standards they want to implement, making a mockery of the Commission’s voluntary approach,” he said. “The current system is ‘regulation’ in name only: there is no accountability, no harmony across member states, and, unfortunately, no indication that this is likely to change any time soon.”

Simone said that even those countries that did complete the questionnaire have made dubious claims. Six member states have said they have the capacity to treat fracking waste, “despite recent warnings from scientists that no satisfactory solution exists for such waste,” said Simone.

He added that the limited responses also show that there are no restrictions or only partial restrictions on extraction in areas prone to flooding in most member states, and a number of member states have no restrictions or only partial restrictions on extraction and exploration in residential areas.

But industry association Shale Gas Europe defended the Commission’s voluntary scoreboard exercise, saying that it provides “transparency and accountability”.

“The scoreboard allows governments across Europe to work together with the European Commission to ensure that shale gas is developed safely and sustainably while guaranteeing that the public is fully informed,” said Marcus Pepperell, a spokesman for the association.

The European Commission is reviewing the responses, and an analysis is expected in August.