When it comes to unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas or tar sands, one might expect stronger than usual environmental standards to be put in place to ensure public safety. As illustrated by dozens of peer-reviewed academic studies, the methods used to extract these fuels are typically riskier, and their long-term consequences for people and the environment are little understood.
Yet environmental regulation for unconventional fossil fuels, such as fracking, is fundamentally weak, with companies required merely to abide by voluntary standards. Why so?
Regulation has been systematically undermined in Brussels by the powerful influence of energy companies and their proponents - an underground offensive to ensure maximum profits for companies, and minimum safeguards for people and the environment.
This offensive is being waged on behalf of companies by a number of powerful lobby groups, paid-for biased scientific reports that downplay the tremendous risks associated with shale gas extraction, and allies from national EU governments up to the highest officials of European institutions.
Total and Shell, for instance, are each affiliated with nine different major shale gas-related lobby groups in Brussels. The largest of these groups bring together the biggest and most powerful energy companies involved in shale gas: both the European Energy Forum and Shale Gas Europe are linked to Shell, BP, Total, Statoil and Chevron, among others, while BusinessEurope and OGP are both linked notably to ExxonMobil, BP, Total and GDF Suez.
These industry groups enjoy vastly privileged access to key decision-makers in shale gas regulation. In 2013, while shale gas regulation was under consideration, DG environment recorded 23 meetings with proponents of the shale gas industry, and just five with NGOs. Meanwhile at DG energy, the then director-general Philip Lowe reported having attended "30 or more" shale gas industry-led meetings in 2013, and none with NGOs or representatives of the European anti-fracking movement.
"This offensive is being waged on behalf of companies by a number of powerful lobby groups, paid-for biased scientific reports that downplay the tremendous risks associated with shale gas extraction, and allies from national EU governments up to the highest officials of European institutions"
But the shale gas industry knows there is little use in buying their way into a debate if expert opinion is united against them. Over the last two years, there has been huge growth in the number of scientific reports cautioning against the environmental dangers and public health risks of shale gas extraction.
Their solution? The shale gas industry has been funding and directing the results of scientific reports by for-hire academics, often with close, and non-disclosed, ties to the shale gas industry, and producing baseless results that downplay the risks associated with extraction.
The industry has also developed a smokescreen by hiding the true impacts of fracking behind public rhetoric committing to the extraction of shale gas in an environmentally friendly way. Behind the scenes, they are calling for weakened legislation for environmental protection in the oil and gas sector.
National governments are also complicit in the promotion of shale and the weakening of regulations at the European level. The United Kingdom and Poland in particular strongly pressed for environmental regulations not to be made binding, and for the existing laissez-faire regulatory climate to persist. In Europe, their lobbying found a sympathetic ear in commission president Barroso, who notably resisted calls for stronger regulation from his own environment commissioner, Janez Potočnik.
It is no wonder that the public debate has become confused. Alongside their privileged access to EU decision-makers, powerful industry lobbies have manufactured doubt about the risks of fracking, and promised, yet highly uncertain, economic growth and job creation - a politically tempting pill to swallow.
It is one that Europe must resist. It is absurd to suggest that unconventional gas should be governed by conventional environmental regulations. Binding standards in the spirit of the precautionary principle must be introduced that put the health of European citizens and our environment first, and not the profits of big energy companies.