On Wednesday, the German cabinet approved the country’s first nationwide fracking law, which would set the “strictest conditions for fracking” according to Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks.
The law, which now heads to parliament for debate, would ban fracking in specified regions “to protect drinking water, health and the environment,” according to the environment and energy ministries. The draft law would ban the use of hydraulic fracturing for drilling processes that are shallower than 3,000 meters, or almost 10,000 feet, and any fracking in nature reserves or national parks.
“This law will enable us to circumscribe fracking so that it no longer represents a danger to people or the environment. As long as the risks cannot be fully evaluated, fracking will be banned,” Hendricks said.
The law, which would be in place for around four years, would allow fracking in certain cases for scientific research as well as exceptional commercial operations that pass a drilling test and get special approval from a committee.
Natural gas in Germany is used mainly for heating, making it harder to replace with renewable sources of energy. Right now Germany gets more than a third of its gas supply from Russia. Last year only 12 percent of the country’s demand was covered by its own supply.
Germany has had a moratorium on fracking since 2011, however there has been consistent pressure from the energy industry to allow some level of the controversial process, which relies on shooting a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals into underground rock formations to help free up gas.
“It’s a positive signal that extraction of shale gas in Germany is not completely out of the question,” said Markus Kerber, general manager of the Federation of German Industries. “However, the requirements for extracting the gas are completely exaggerated.”
Germany’s neighbors have taken different approaches to addressing the industry. France and Bulgaria have fracking moratoriums in place, while Poland has eagerly pursued the process. Wales and Scotland also recently imposed fracking moratoriums as the countries consider the environmental and health hazards associated with the operations.
Public health concerns over the process include air and water contamination as well as leaking methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change. A link between fracking and minor earthquakes has also been observed in the United States. Increased truck traffic and noise pollution are also concerns harbored by residents in near proximity to the extraction.
While the debate over the merits and pitfalls of fracking plays out throughout Germany, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions fell for the first time in three years in 2014. According to the environmental ministry, the drop came both from the expansion of renewables and a relatively mild winter. Renewable sources accounted for 27.8 percent of power consumption in 2014, up from 6.2 percent in 2000, and carbon emissions dropped 4.3 percent year-over-year. This makes 2014 a big year for Germany’s renewable energy transition, known as Energiewende, which requires the phasing out of nuclear energy by 2022 and reducing GHGs at least 80 percent by 2050.
“The year ended with an unexpected Christmas present: Germany finally got behind energy efficiency and ratcheted up the pressure on utilities to cut emissions more dramatically, which translates into less coal-fired production,” wrote Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist. “The new program will slash carbon emissions by between 62 million and 78 million tons by 2020. A reduction of 25 to 30 million tons will come by way of energy efficiency.”