Unconventional hydrocarbons are resources found in reservoirs with geological characteristics and locations different from those where oil and gas are usually produced.
• 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)
Extracting these fossil fuels is generally more difficult than extracting from conventional sources. The extraction of shale gas, for instance, requires the drilling of additional wells and using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”) – opening 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.
Shale gas has widely been considered to be the unconventional fossil fuel with the greatest potential for development in Europe. To further explore, the European Commission and the Geological Surveys of Europe (EGS) conducted a pan-European assessment, which also includes 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 that can serve as a common basis to make informed decisions at the social, political and industrial level.
The estimation of shale gas resources in place amounts to 89 trillion cube meters (tcm), with the corresponding estimate for shale oil in place set to 31 billion barrels (bbl), using a so called P50 estimate – a median value that indicates at least a 50% probability that the existing resource base would be equal to or exceed the best estimate. At present, it is uncertain how much of the estimated resources could be recovered, both in a technical and economic sense, as shale gas has not been widely used for commercial purposes in the EU. A full report on the resource assessment of shale gas and shale oil was published by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in February 2017, within the framework of the EUOGA research project on unconventional hydrocarbons.
Countries in Europe 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.
Environment and climate concerns
The 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. Of key significance is the issued recommendation from January 2014 for EU countries when creating or adapting legislation related to hydraulic fracturing, which was accompanied by a communication outlining opportunities and challenges stemming from shale gas extraction in Europe, as well as 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.