As Fracking Hits Europe, the EU Looks West

American efforts to put the brakes on fracking (or “hydrofracturing”) for natural gas may have global implications. Orion columnist Sandra Steingraber, who has written extensively about the subject, was in Belgium recently, where she spoke to the EU Parliament about the environmental causes of cancer. During her formal remarks, she spoke about fracking at length―and seems to have opened up a continent-wide inquiry about the process that has wormed its way into France, Poland, and elsewhere in Europe.

“Word now comes from southern France about shale gas [exploration] there,” Sandra wrote to us in a recent email. European media, it seems, is picking up the story: The Guardian has reported on shale gas exploration across the continent; and it appears fracking could soon become an issue in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands.

It seems likely, however, that European activists will have a fuller set of federal regulations at their backs.

“Because the EU has a more far-reaching and precautionary federal toxics law than we do, it’s likely our counterparts in Europe can discover things about fracking that we cannot and have other legal tools that we don’t have,” writes Sandra.

One useful thing a European investigation of fracking might discover is the sort of chemical injected into the ground during the process (the identity of the chemical mix is often proprietary). Compared to the U.S., the EU approach to dealing with potentially hazardous chemicals adheres, admirably, to a precautionary principle—and one European law in particular, REACH, may be useful in flagging specific chemicals for authorization. If that happens, significant controls or an outright ban on fracking might become reality in Europe. The analogous American toxics law, TSCA, has far less, well, reach.

Still, the response of U.S. activists to hydrofracturing is a model for European environmental officials and watchdog NGOs: “Our public resistance efforts here are being watched by the whole world,” writes Sandra. “I urge us to consider, even as we necessarily focus on creating prohibitions at local and state levels, how we are connected across the ocean.”


  1. Very small quantities of toxic chemicals are capable of contaminating millions of gallons of water. Only a few tablespoons of some chemicals could contaminate millions of gallons of ground water at concentrations that would render it undrinkable. Although much of the injected fracturing fluids are pumped out of the ground, 20% to 30% of the fluids may remain in the ground. It is unclear how contaminated water brought to the surface will be handled and treated.

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