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Oil Executive Promotes Shale Gas to Europeans

Publish Date 2011-10-13
LONDON — A senior executive from Exxon Mobil warned Wednesday that Europe could miss a chance to reduce its dependence on imported energy by making it too difficult to develop shale gas and so-called unconventional resources.

The executive, Andrew P. Swiger, a senior vice president at Exxon, said that the conventional gas fields currently supplying Europe were expected to decline, raising dependence on imports delivered through pipelines and as liquefied natural gas.

“By 2030, Europeans are expected to be significantly more reliant on imports of natural gas than they are today,” Mr. Swiger said in London at the Oil and Money conference, which is jointly organized by The International Herald Tribune and Energy Intelligence. “Europe’s unconventional natural resources can provide the opportunity to offset this changing mix with domestic supplies,” he said.

One of the main obstacles to drilling for gas trapped in fine-grained shale rock is the growing public skepticism about the environmental impact of “fracking,” using pressurized water, sand and chemicals to release the gas.

Mr. Swiger’s remarks came after a decision this summer by the French Parliament to revoke permits from companies using the method. Since then, health and environmental activists have stepped up efforts to extend similar restrictions across the European Union.

Europe is far from united against gas fracking. Poland and Bulgaria are among the countries enthusiastically developing shale gas, partly as a counterweight to mounting anxiety about depending on Russia for natural gas.

Mr. Swiger said fracking could be done safely and cleanly, and he said local regulators should be permitted to decide whether to permit the technique in their communities. He said Europe’s shale resources, although different in some ways from the resources in North America, “may prove to be significant,” partly because of rapidly evolving drilling and extraction techniques.

Since 2008, Exxon has drilled a number of exploratory wells in Germany for shale gas and for coal-bed methane, which is found in coal seams or in the surrounding rock, Exxon officials said. The company is still analyzing those results to establish their commercial potential, the officials said.

Other experts who spoke at the conference said geologists needed to do more work to determine whether shale gas could be produced in Europe.

“It remains to be seen whether Central Europe has the same rich source rocks as North America,” said Thomas S. Ahlbrandt, a former senior official at the United States Geological Survey, which is credited with numerous oil and gas discoveries.

Michelle Michot Foss, chief energy economist and head of the Center for Energy Economics, part of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, said companies looking for opportunities in shale gas were undeterred — for now.

“You go where you can go, and Eastern Europe seems to be more the place where everybody can go right now,” Ms. Foss said. “The question will be whether they get enough drilling and commercial success in Poland and other places to make it worthwhile.”

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