M4ShaleGas stands for Measuring, Monitoring, Mitigating and Managing the environmental impact of shale gas. The project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme and aims at addressing the specific challenge related to understanding, preventing and mitigating the potential environmental impacts and risks of shale gas exploration and exploitation. The M4ShaleGas project is carried out by 18 European research institutions and is coordinated by TNO-Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. The consortium studies and evaluates potential risks and impacts of shale gas exploration and exploitation. The general objective is to develop science-based best practice recommendations for minimizing the environmental footprint of shale gas exploration and exploitation in Europe.

Shale gas is – by definition – a natural gas found trapped in shale, a fine grained sedimentary rock composed of mud. Shale gas source rocks are widely distributed around the world and many countries have now started to investigate their shale gas potential. Some argue that shale gas has already proved to be a game changer in the U.S. energy market (EIA 2015). The European Commission's Energy Roadmap 2050 identifies gas as a critical energy source for the transformation of the energy system to a system with lower CO2 emissions that combines gas with increasing contributions of renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency. It may be argued that in Europe, natural gas replacing coal and oil will contribute to emissions reduction on the short and medium terms.

On the other hand, scientists forecast that much of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if global warming is to be limited to 2oC above pre-industrial levels. More localised concerns include potential risks of water contamination and induced seismicity, mainly being associated with hydraulic fracturing operations, as well as social impacts and health effects.

Questions are raised about the specific environmental footprint of shale gas in Europe as a whole as well as in individual Member States. Shale gas basins are unevenly distributed among the European Member States and are not restricted within national borders which makes close cooperation between the involved Member States essential. There is relatively little knowledge on the footprint in regions with a variety of geological and geopolitical settings as are present in Europe.

Concerns and risks are clustered in the following four areas: subsurface, surface, atmosphere and society. As the European continent is densely populated, it is most certainly of vital importance to understand public perceptions of shale gas and for European publics to be fully engaged in the debate about its potential development.

Europe has a strong need for a comprehensive knowledge base on potential environmental, societal and economic consequences of shale gas exploration and exploitation. Knowledge needs to be science-based, needs to be developed by research institutes with a strong track record in shale gas studies, and needs to cover the different attitudes and approaches to shale gas exploration and exploitation in Europe. The M4ShaleGas project is seeking to provide such a scientific knowledge base.

EIA (2015). Annual Energy Outlook 2015 with projections to 2040. U.S. Energy Information Administration (www.eia.gov).