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German government approves controversial fracking bill

April 1, 2015

German cabinet has decided to allow shale gas fracking in Germany, but only under strict regulation and for testing purposes. Even so, lawmakers criticized the proposed bill for not being strict enough.

Protest gegen Fracking vor dem Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

According to the government proposal, fracking should be prohibited in so-called sensitive regions such as nature parks or water bore areas, and in depths above 3,000 meters. However, the bill allows for exceptions such as scientific tests, and it does not eliminate the possibility of commercial drilling past 2018.

The public remains hostile to the plan, with environmentalists, unions and even churches criticizing the proposal. There is even strong resistance within the ruling coalition itself, which holds 504 out of 631 seats in the German parliament.

"Many of my fellow lawmakers could not vote for the draft bill in its current form," Andreas Mattfeld, a member of parliament from Angela Merkel's CDU party, said.

"We couldn't imagine indiscriminate (blanket) testing in Germany. We believe it would be reasonable to quantify it, relating to geological conditions."

Some members of the German SPD party, which is CDU's coalition partner, have also demanded the proposal to be changed.

Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into layers of rock to release trapped oil and gas. Critics claim the process is damaging to the environment and could pollute the drinking water.

Burden of proof on companies

Federal environment minister Barbara Hendricks claims that the government does not intend to lift any bans.

"Just the opposite: plenty of things that were possible before, are now forbidden", she said at a press conference Wednesday.

At the same time, Hendricks positioned herself against a complete ban of fracking in shale, clay and coal, saying a total ban on a technology goes against principles of the German constitution.

"Whether or not this technology will someday be environmentally friendly, remains to be seen. It is possible to doubt whether Germany even needs it," she wrote in a letter to SPD and CDU lawmakers. "However, it's not our goal to permanently ban a new technology. Instead, our task is to eliminate the possibility of it endangering the health, lives, and the environment."

In addition, Hendricks pointed out that in future court disputes, citizens will no more need to prove that their property was damaged by mining. Instead, the drilling companies would have to prove that events like earthquakes are not related to fracking.

Russian gas pressure

The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has welcomed the lack of a total ban on fracking while criticizing the other aspect of the draft bill.

"It's a positive signal that extraction of shale gas in Germany is not completely out of the question. However, the requirements for extracting the gas are completely exaggerated," said the association's general manager Markus Kerber, adding that fracking could be an important point in ensuring energy security.

According to official estimates, the amount of gas to be obtained by fracking could theoretically cover the demand in the country for 14 years. In the current political climate, the exploitation of domestic energy reserves has the added advantage of making Germany less dependent on importing gas from Russia.

dj/rc (dpa, Reuters, epd, AFP)