If any European country could have a US-like fracking boom, it's Poland. But optimism has waned.
Estimated to have more untapped reserves than any other European Union nation, Poland was eager to replicate the boom from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States that has helped lower energy prices and carbon emissions.
But now the scenario is increasingly cloudy. Poland's estimates of shale have been reduced, and three major energy companies, including ExxonMobil, have recently pulled out of the country after disappointing results.
It's still early, but Poland's experience speaks to the uncertainties of the shale industry's future in Europe. The process of fracking – retrieving gas from shale rock by injecting water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth – remains controversial, and many countries are wary. And even where governments have supported it, officials have been slowed by more complicated geologies sitting under denser populations than those in US states like Texas – as well as a divided public.
"We are no longer as excited as we were two or three years ago" about the prospects of a shale gas industry in Europe, says Bartosz Wisniewski, an expert on the European industry at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. And the Polish experience with fracking, if it goes badly, could sour the rest of the Continent. "There is no reason to write Polish shale gas off entirely," he says, but "to a certain extent, we could prove incompatibility."
Two years ago, the Continent's shale gas seemed a great opportunity for a Europe struggling with a debt crisis, crippling austerity, and record high unemployment. Many thought that Europe could benefit as the US industry has, with gas prices that have dropped by nearly 66 percent since 2008, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
But tapping those reserves requires both political and public support for fracking, which exist at varying levels across Europe. While Poland and Britain have supported the initial stages of an industry, Germany and France have been more resistant. Beer producers in Germany recently sided with anti-fracking advocates, claiming that the process will pollute ground water. France, which could have some of the greatest sources of shale, has outright banned fracking since 2011.
"The debate on shale gas has gone on for too long," French President François Hollande recently said. "As long as I am president, there will be no exploration for shale gas in France."
If any country were to push forward, it would be Poland. Despite some grass-roots opposition to fracking, including a farmer protest against Chevron's well testing, the country has generally supported the search for shale gas. Long subject to the whims of the Russian energy sector – a position made even more uncomfortable by Russia's former role as occupier of East and Central Europe – Poland could boost its energy independence.
"The desire for energy independence is strongest in Poland because they suffered a lot by Russia in the last two centuries," says Martin Ehl, a business and energy reporter in Prague, Czech Republic.
It's also about price. Poland imports two-thirds of its gas from Russia, paying prices that are four or five times higher than current prices in the US, says Katarzyna Kacperczyk, the director of the economic cooperation department in Poland's Foreign Ministry. "If we maintain the difference in prices between the US and Europe, European industry is going to lose competitiveness," she says.
But Poland's initial enthusiasm has been tempered since 2011, as hurdles have arisen.
EIA estimates initially showed Poland had 5.3 trillion cubic meters of gas, but Polish geological studies, using different methodologies, estimate potential at only a fraction of that. And according to the EIA's new assessment report from June, potential has been reduced by 20 percent, in part because of more complicated geological conditions for retrieving shale gas.
It's a familiar tale in Europe, where companies weigh whether harder-to-access gas is commercially viable with current technology and unclear regulations that could affect investment gains. Last year, ExxonMobil left Poland after drilling two vertical test wells; two other major energy companies followed suit this spring.
Ms. Kacperczyk says that hasn't changed the the government's attitude. As the EIA report sums up: "Poland offers Europe's best prospects for developing a viable shale gas/oil industry."
The panorama in Britain, which the EIA says is second to Poland in pursuing its shale gas potential, shows the two divergent views that have emerged in the debate in Europe.
The Institute of Directors (IoD), a Britain-based business membership organization, recently published a report that was clear in its optimism about the potential of fracking by comparing it to Britain's profitable offshore oil fields: "Shale gas could be a new North Sea for Britain."
But Britain has seen major setbacks as it attempts to develop an industry. In 2011, testing of its first well led to a series of minor earthquakes, a moratorium on fracking, and a firestorm of protest, giving rise to perhaps Europe's best-known anti-fracking group, Frack Off.
The two sides continue to butt heads. In December, Britain lifted its fracking moratorium after the government concluded that the environmental risks of shale exploration are small and manageable. The British Geological Survey at the end of June ramped up estimates for the industry's potential, and the government has promised a public-awareness campaign to dispel the "myths" around fracking.
Britain is "slowly moving in favor," says Corin Taylor, a senior economic adviser at IoD and the author of the group's shale gas report. "But there is still a long way to go. It is still very early days."
Yet Frack Off says it is intent on keeping the industry at bay and preventing the possibility of water contamination and methane leaks. The 2010 documentary GasLand said those problems in the US were caused by fracking – and could have a much greater effect in Europe, which lacks the open spaces of the American states where fracking is practiced.
"The UK and Europe have a much higher-population density than the US and that's making a real difference," says Katy Wales, a campaigner at Frack Off. "Large numbers of people live in every area in which the government has sold exploration licenses. That means you've got regional groups fighting the industry in almost every part of the country."
Despite the divergent views ranging from bonanza to ban, it will likely be a long time before Europe can ever catch up to the US – if it ever could.
Even if Britain, for example, is able to develop an industry, says Andrew Aplin, professor of petroleum geoscience at Durham University in northern England, it's unclear how big it would be and what kind of effect it would have on price, since so much of Europe depends on imported gas from Russia, Norway, and Qatar, and could possibly rely on imports from the US in the future.
"I don't think we are looking at anything that's the extent of the US," says Mr. Aplin. "But I think there are real possibilities [for] an industry if we choose to have one."
The choices Europe will make are far from certain. For starters, incentives differ from those in the US, where individuals own mineral rights, meaning they can lease their land and share in the windfall of shale exploration. In many parts of Europe, there is no similar motivation because the state owns the rights, making exploration a nuisance, not a potential boon.
But beyond incentives for the individuals of Europe is the Continent's identity as the world's "green" leader. Europe has led in its commitment to combating climate change and embraced renewables such as solar and wind power.
Pro-fracking advocates have said that fracking is environmentally friendly, pointing to shale gas as a much cleaner fossil fuel than coal. In fact, while the US is generally considered less environmentally rigorous than Europe, it has reduced its carbon emissions as it has replaced coal with gas.
"Some have said [Europe] should look to the US [energy blend] as the model, rather than renewables that are expensive," explains Antony Froggatt, a senior fellow in energy and environment at the think tank Chatham House in Britain.
That argument often fails to produce advocates, however. A boom in gas could lead to the industrialization of vast swaths of the countryside at a time when "we are facing a climate crisis and should be cutting energy consumption, not finding more to burn," Ms. Wales says.
But economic realities may trump environmental considerations in an era of crisis, in which focus is on growth. "Competition," says Mr. Froggatt, has replaced "climate change" as the new buzz word in EU energy rhetoric.
Many politicians have been quoted as saying it would be "irresponsible" to ignore the resources under their feet.
"The search for shale gas gets serious today," said Michael Fallon, Britain's energy minister, upon the release of the long-awaited British geological report. "Given the scale of its potential, it would be irresponsible of us not to encourage its exploration."