Unconventional hydrocarbons are resources found in reservoirs with geological characteristics and locations different from those where oil and gas are usually produced. They include
- natural gas from shale formations (shale gas)
- natural gas from coal seams (coalbed methane)
- crude oil from shale formations or other formations with low permeability (tight oil or shale oil)
Extraction and fracking
Unconventional hydrocarbons can contribute to the EU's security of supply and competitiveness. There are however public concerns over their extraction since it is generally more difficult than extracting from conventional sources.
The extraction of shale gas, for instance, requires the drilling of additional wells and is using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracking”. It opens up fissures in the rock by using large quantities of water under high pressure, mixed with sand and other additives in order to release the gas. The EU is working to ensure that such extraction is done with proper environmental and climate safeguards.
EU countries have adopted different policies towards shale gas, ranging from the banning of hydraulic fracturing in France and Bulgaria to explanatory drillings and hydraulic fracturing tests in Poland. Although some countries have previously expressed a strong interest in exploring shale gas resources, the United Kingdom is the only country in Europe where companies pursue such efforts.
Shale gas is widely considered to be the unconventional fossil fuel with the greatest development potential in Europe. To further explore, the European Commission and the Geological Surveys of Europe conducted a pan-European assessment, which also included Ukraine, of unconventional gas and oil resources.
The project, called the European Unconventional Oil and Gas Assessment (EUOGA), took place from September 2015 to March 2017. By identifying and bridging gaps from previous assessments, the project provides a broad European scale of basin-by-basin resource potential to help make informed decisions at the social, political and industrial level.
A key result from the EUOGA project shows that estimates of shale gas resources amounts to 89 trillion cube meters. The corresponding estimate for shale oil is set to 31 billion barrels. The researchers used a so-called P50 estimate to determine these estimates. P50 is a median value that indicates at least 50% probability that the existing resources would be equal to or exceeds the best estimate.
Shale gas has not been widely used for commercial purposes in the EU, so it is uncertain how much of the estimated resources can be recovered. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a full report on the resource assessment of shale gas and shale oil in February 2017, within the framework of the project.
Environment and climate concerns
The European Commission is committed to the environmental integrity of unconventional hydrocarbons, and has undertaken a series of measures to ensure that extraction is done in a safe, responsible and environmentally friendly way.
In January 2014, the Commission issued recommendations for EU countries when creating or adapting legislation related to hydraulic fracturing. The recommendations were accompanied by a communication outlining opportunities and challenges stemming from shale gas extraction in Europe and an impact assessment on the socio-economic and environmental impacts.
To further address concerns, the European science and technology network on unconventional hydrocarbons was established in 2014 to collect, analyse and review results from shale gas exploration projects in the EU, including the development of technologies used in unconventional oil and gas projects. The network concluded its work in 2016.
Guidance on hydrocarbons
In February 2019, the Commission published a guidance document on hydrocarbons. It includes 13 onshore and 10 offshore activities of the oil and gas extracting sector that have the potentially highest impact on the environment and human health. The documents identifies best practices that can help organisations engaged in hydrocarbon activities and guide regulatory/permitting authorities.
- Best available techniques guidance document on upstream hydrocarbon exploration and production (February 2019)
- Report: Resource estimation of shale gas and shale oil in Europe (February 2017), EUOAGA project, JRC
- Recommendation on minimum principles for the exploration and production of hydrocarbons (such as shale gas) using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (2014/70/EU)
- Communication on the exploration and production of hydrocarbons (such as shale gas) using high volume hydraulic fracturing in the EU (COM/2014/023 final/2 */)
- Commission Staff Working Document Impact Assessment (SWD/2014/021 final)
- Directive 94/22/EC on Prospection, Exploration and Production of Hydrocarbons
- Recommendations on the environmental aspects on unconventional fossil fuels (2014/70/EU)
- Environmental aspects on unconventional fossil fuels, DG Environment
- Unconventional hydrocarbons projects and publications, (EC Joint Research Centre)
- Atlas of European Unconventional Hydrocarbons (EC Joint Research Centre)
- The European Unconventional Hydrocarbons Portal