Belcombe protest
Fracking protestors in Balcombe, England.
Sheila

European leaders have been peering across the pond at the American fracking boom with envy, watching as the U.S. gives itself a powerful economic edge by trashing its environment to extract natural gas and oil. Now politicians and business leaders from England, Germany, and Holland to Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria have started to push “us too” energy policies.

But many European citizens are not so frack-happy. Some are taking to the streets in rage.

In England, furor has been centered in the bucolic West Sussex village of Balcombe, population 2,000, where a single drilling rig tapping an exploratory well has attracted an encampment of anti-fracking protestors. Dozens have been arrested, including a member of Parliament representing the Green Party. From The Washington Post:

The worries have not only rattled Balcombe’s many well-heeled residents, who have expressed their concerns with characteristic restraint — over tea, at parish council meetings and with knit-ins — but also brought out a louder army of environmental activists. They recently descended on this bucolic retreat wearing the mask of Guy Fawkes, the Briton who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, shouting slogans and telling horror stories about the United States, where they believe fracking has caused earthquakes, water pollution and the rapid industrialization of areas that were formerly pristine. …

“It’s normally such a quiet road,” said Paula Magee, a 49-year-old from Balcombe who has stopped drinking local water for fear of the impact of drilling on the water supply. Nearly every day, she makes the half-mile trek from the village, down the normally quiet road, past the long line of police vans here to keep the peace, across the sea of colorful-if-tatty tents to the entrance of a 72-foot-tall drilling rig.

Not all Britons are opposed to fracking, but support seems as tepid as a forgotten cup of tea. The Post cites a YouGov poll that found 41 percent thought their country should frack its gas reserves, but only 25 percent thought it would be a good idea to frack in their own areas.

From The New York Times:

[Prime Minister David Cameron’s] vision of bountiful energy supplies from subterranean shale rock plays into the delicate politics of persuading his Conservative followers in the well-padded southeast of the country to accept his argument that, as he put it, “the huge benefits of shale gas outweigh any very minor changes to the landscape.”

And his advocacy of the new technology, which opponents say risks poisoning groundwater and damaging the environment in other ways, has provoked a collision of faith and economics. Clerics in the northwest — seen as an abundant source of shale gas — have called on congregants to answer to their God and “engage in biblical and theological discussion about their responsibility as stewards of the earth.”

German brewers, meanwhile, are warning that fracking could threaten the nation’s treasured libations. From a May story by Reuters:

Under the “Reinheitsgebot”, or German purity law, brewers have to produce beer using only malt, hops, yeast and water.

“The water has to be pure and more than half Germany’s brewers have their own wells which are situated outside areas that could be protected under the government’s current planned legislation on fracking,” said a Brauer-Bund [beer association] spokesman.

“You cannot be sure that the water won’t be polluted by chemicals so we have urged the government to carry out more research before it goes ahead with a fracking law,” he added.

Protests appear to have have been more muted in Eastern Europe, although some farmers have threatened to use Molotov cocktails against an Exxon operation. It might not be public opposition that kills fracking there, though — doubts are growing over whether the region can produce as much gas from its shale as had been promised, and oil companies are unhappy about red tape. From a July Bloomberg story:

[T]he prospect of a European shale revolution is in doubt before it has begun. Exxon said in June 2012 it was pulling out of Poland after its first wells produced disappointing results, which was followed by Talisman [Energy Inc.]. On May 7, Marathon Oil Corp. said it was quitting after failing to find commercially viable resources and it would seek to dispose of its 11 licenses. …

Deposits in Poland have turned out to be deeper and harder to exploit than those in the U.S. due to geology and poor roads to remote eastern regions. Estimated reserves in the European country were cut to 9 trillion cubic feet last year by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 44 trillion in 2011.

“Big companies like Shell and Chevron could become afraid to invest,” said Volodymyr Omelchenko, head of energy analysis at the Razumkov research group in Kiev and former director of shipments at Ukraine’s NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy. “Ukraine has an enormous potential but realization will be difficult because the legal system is governed by old Soviet traditions.”

Last week, one test well in Poland was reported to be producing a promising amount of natural gas, though still not enough for a commercial operation, Reuters reports.

France, in contrast, has said “non, merci” to fracking. “We have to have our eyes wide open about what is going on in the U.S.,” said French Environmental and Energy Minister Delphine Batho earlier this year. “The reality is that the cost of producing gas doesn’t take into account considerable environmental damage.”