Before Birgit S Hansen, mayor of Frederikshavn, starts talking about shale gas, she makes sure the person she’s talking to understands the situation.
“The council hasn’t given permission to drill for shale gas,” she says.
What Frederikshavn did do on June 25, by a vote of 27 votes to four was to approve a change in the council’s planning laws. The change was required if Total, a French oil and gas firm, is to be able to go forward with plans to explore for shale gas.
Large amounts of shale gas are believed to be present in a swathe of the Danish underground stretching from northern Jutland to northern Zealand. This will be the first time shale gas exploration is conducted in Denmark, and environmental groups, as well as property owners, are pushing hard to ensure that drilling does not begin.
They are concerned that if shale gas is found, it will lead to large-scale drilling that would pollute groundwater and lower property values.
Hansen, though, reckoned that had the council not changed its planning law, the state would have overruled their decision and given Total permission to drill anyway.
“I respect the four councillors who voted against and their principles, but I feel we as a council have done our job,” she says. “We gave permission to explore, not extract. That’s something we made perfectly clear.”
In Denmark, underground resources are owned by the state and that’s another thing Hansen wants to make sure that people are aware of: it is the state, not her council, that has asked Total to begin drilling.
“Parliament will have to decide whether they want to have shale gas become a part of our energy supply. And that’s not something I envy them.”
Hansen admits that even though she’s relieved not to have to be saddled with the decision about whether to frack, she said she was being realistic about the impact it could have.
“We didn’t approve it thinking about what sort of economic opportunities it could bring for us, but of course it could create jobs or bring activity to our port.”
Hansen, like others in Frederikshavn, has expressed concern about the possible environmental impacts of fracking, and in connection with the council’s change to the planning law called on the Climate and Energy Ministry to clarify what it intended to do if Total finds shale gas.
So far the ministry has remained silent, indicating only that Frederikshavn had the “right and the responsibility” to decide about whether to permit the drilling to take place.
“We’ve asked them to tell us where they plan to go with this. We don’t even know if there’s gas there. If there is, then parliament needs to tell everyone whether they will go ahead with it. For now, we just have to wait and see.”