Hydraulic fracturing has become the latest issue to test Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government, after Finance Minister Christian Lindner raised the possibility of lifting Germany’s partial ban last week.
“We have considerable gas reserves in Germany that can be extracted without endangering drinking water,” the leader of the neoliberal Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) told Funke Media Group. Mining could be “responsible under ecological conditions,” Lindner said, before asserting that it would actually be more “irresponsible to give up fracking out of ideological commitment.”
The mining method – fracturing bedrock by injecting water and chemicals into it to release gas – was partially banned in Germany in 2016. European Union (CDU) insisted it remains a viable way to find new fossil fuels on German soil.
The Environment Ministry, led by Steffi Lemke of the Green Party, was quick to reject Lindner’s idea. “Fracking gas harms the climate and extracting it harms the environment,” a ministry spokesperson told the RND news network. Its extraction was banned in Germany “for a good reason”, he said.
Is fracking an option?
This was backed by Mathias Koch, policy adviser on Germany’s energy transition at E3G, an independent climate change think tank in Berlin. “At a time when fracking could make a significant contribution to Germany’s energy supply, we can already save a lot more by insulating buildings and installing heat pumps,” he told DW. “It’s irresponsible to distract from real solutions by dragging yet another non-problem to the fore.”
Germany theoretically has enough natural gas on its own territory to cover 20% of the country’s needs, but only half is “economically viable”, according to the oil and gas industry association BVEG. On top of that, BVEG told broadcaster ARD in April that it would take three years of exploration just to figure out where the new extraction sites should be, let alone start pumping gas out of the ground.
Other issues with hydraulic fracturing are the unavoidable environmental damage, the danger of releasing methane (a gas even more dangerous to the climate than CO2) and even the threat of triggering earthquakes. All these factors explain why hydraulic fracturing is also unpopular: a survey by infratest pollster dimap from August 2022 found that only around one in four Germans favor hydraulic fracturing on their national soil, compared to more than half in Germany. favor of the extension of nuclear energy.
Driven by political need
Many observers suspect that Lindner’s intervention was rooted in political worries rather than concerns about Germany’s energy supply. The FDP, mainly a center-right neoliberal party, struggled in regional elections: it lost more than half of its vote share in North Rhine-Westphalia in May and completely abandoned the parliament of state of Lower Saxony in a disastrous election last month.
In response, Lindner increasingly seems to be articulating opposing positions by the center-left parties he shares government with: Scholz’s Social Democrats and the Greens.
It’s a risky move that could destabilize the coalition, but Karl-Heinz Paque, chairman of the FDP-affiliated Friedrich Naumann Foundation and currently a member of the party’s federal executive committee, told DW that Lindner’s move was based on principles rather than on political expediency.
“The FDP is fundamentally open to technology, and that of course includes fracking,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but what I’ve read suggests that there are new forms of technology in this area. I don’t see that relating to a coalition discussion.”
Paque said disagreements are normal in any coalition. “The Greens have ideas that we don’t share, we have ideas that the Greens don’t share, and we have to compromise within the coalition,” he said, before emphasizing that the Union conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) was itself internally divided on fracking.
It’s no secret that the FDP is generally more comfortable in a coalition with the CDU, both politically and historically. “Of course it’s not an easy situation for us,” Paque said. “A lot of our constituents don’t particularly like this coalition.”
There is also no doubt that the ambitious modernization plans the new government put into its contract last December, many of which were led by the FDP, have been thwarted by the war in Ukraine. Just as the Greens had to compromise on fossil fuels, the FDP had to compromise on its budgetary principles: Finance Minister Lindner found himself spending a lot more public money: on defense in particular, but also to protect businesses and people against spiraling energy costs.
Paque said the FDP stayed behind its leader: “Lindner is a very strong leadership figure, and he got the party out of quite a few crises.”
But Mathias Koch was damning for the noise Lindner makes. “This is yet another attempt by the FDP to regain ground by blowing a minor issue into the debate, much like the week-long squabbles over nuclear extension,” he said. “They now seem to be more and more targeting the last voters who want to see the energy transition slowed down.”
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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