1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German energy dispute

Daniella Cheslow and Ben MackDecember 13, 2012

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would phase out its nuclear power by 2022, she wasn't clear about what would replace it. One possibility is fracking, but not everyone is onboard.

The RWE Dea drill outside of Verkusen, half an hour's drive from Bremen.
Image: DW/D.Cheslow

Germany is on the hunt for new sources of energy. In August, a new coal-fired power plant opened in Cologne.

The plant has touched off a firestorm of debate over German energy policy, particularly over a new - and potentially dangerous - method that carries both massive risk and massive reward: hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

DW visited a drilling site in the small village of Verkusen. The facility belongs to the Hamburg-based RWE Dea oil and gas company. An eerie silence permeated the air during the visit. The drill was quiet, surrounded by corn fields and tall trees, with a little red church in the distance.

RWE Dea is just one company exploring drilling options in Germany. ExxonMobil now has six test wells for shale gas throughout the country. The reason is that Germany has as much as trillions cubic meters of shale gas, locked away in rock.

An anti-gas drilling sign on the road to the RWE Dea drill site outside Verkusen
Anti-gas drilling signs are common on the road to the RWE Dea drill site outside VerkusenImage: DW/D.Cheslow


Getting to the gas is both incredibly complex - and incredibly expensive. When using the fracking method, explosives are used to create tiny fissures deep in the ground. The area is then blasted with sand, water and chemicals.

In addition to its complexity, the technique is highly controversial. Miriam Strauch, a spokesperson for the German oil and gas industry, says shale gas could play a critical role as a bridge between nuclear and renewable fuels. But for others in the region, shale gas is a terrifying prospect, and it has got them so worried that they don't want any gas production at all.

Verkusen mayor Andreas Notelmayer sitting at a table.
Verkusen's mayor says he's against drilling outside his villageImage: DW/D.Cheslow

While ExxonMobil has drilled substantial amounts of shale gas this way in the United States, shale has also been blamed for water pollution, connected to cancer and even blamed for earthquakes. A 2010 documentary, "Gasland," which featured water so polluted it could be lit on fire, has become the talk of the German environmental community.

Verkusen mayor Andreas Notelmeyer founded a local group called 'Against Fracking'. He said he already had suspicions about gas drilling before a major contamination incident last January.

"Our point now is no production at all," Notelmeyer said in an interview with DW. "The film 'Gasland' shows us what our future might look like. We are very frightened."

Notelmeyer said he probably won't manage to eliminate drilling near his village, but he hopes to at least raise attention and tighten regulation of gas drilling.

Inherent risk

RWE Dea spokesperson Caroline Fleming said activists like Notelmeyer can be frustrating. "People put into question technology now which we have implemented in Germany for 50 years without incident," she said.

But gas drilling has its own risks. The city of Bremen gets most of its water from its neighbors in the state of Lower Saxony. Locals in Bremen are worried about water quality near gas drilling sites. Bremen is investing 180 million euros in a special harbor that will make it easier to build wind turbines offshore in the North Sea. Bremen city council environmental director Georg Musiol says it should be open in 2015.

Caroline Fleming, spokeswoman for the RWE Dea oil and gas company, in front of a sign.
Fleming says US fracking stories are making Germans nervousImage: DW/D.Cheslow

'We need a supply that is stable'

Today, renewable energy provides a quarter of Germany's energy. Even with the most dedicated push, Germany's electric grid needs heavy investment before it can handle the highs and lows of wind and solar energy. Dietrich Borchardt, a scientist at the Technical University of Dresden, said ten years to transition to clean is too optimistic.

"It takes a longer time, and therefore energy security is a big question," he said. "We need a supply that is stable."

Meanwhile, the Bundestag is due to reopen the debate on fracking later this month.