European Union leaders look to energy for growth boost

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European Union (EU) leaders, desperate to give growth a boost, targeted energy policy on Wednesday amid concerns a US-led revolution in shale oil and gas development will reshape the global economy and leave Europe far behind.

Stuck in the doldrums, Europe has lost nearly all momentum as the debt crisis bites deeper and sends unemployment soaring, with governments scrambling to find some momentum.

Worse still, energy costs remain high, in marked contrast to the United States where new shale oil and gas resources have sent prices tumbling, setting up nothing less than a new industrial revolution.

The implications are unmistakeable for a Europe which paid one billion euros (S$1.6 billion) a day for its energy imports in 2012, according to European Commission figures.

"Europe risks becoming the only continent to depend on imported energy," EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who hosts Wednesday's summit meeting, has warned.

"In 2035, we will still depend on imports for more than 80 per cent of our energy needs and that will have consequences for our competitiveness and our companies," Mr Van Rompuy said.

"We need one trillion euros in investment by 2020," he said.

EU leaders will have "a strategic discussion ... on the key issue of energy policy and competitiveness," Mr Van Rompuy told leaders in a summit invitation letter.

Last week, the International Energy Agency said North American shale energy production had set off a global "supply shock" that is reshaping the whole industry.

While the benefits are clear, shale oil and gas also comes with a potentially high environmental cost which worries many.

Critics say hydraulic fracturing - or fracking- of rocks deep underground to release oil and gas threatens water supplies and may even set off earthquakes.

Against this backdrop, a draft of the summit conclusions makes no direct mention of shale, referring only to European Commission plans to "assess a more systematic recourse to indigenous sources of energy with a view to their safe and sustainable exploitation". But the message is clear.

"What is happening in the United States with shale gas ... that is one of the factors driving the discussion," an EU official said ahead of the meeting.

Energy, the draft conclusions note, is the preserve of national policy although member states are duty bound to keep their EU partners informed of what they plan to do.

Britain, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Spain favour developing shale energy but others, and France in particular, are opposed, citing the environmental issues involved.

"If member states want to do shale gas, they can do it. Their energy mix is up to the member states," EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said last week.

At the same time, Ms Hedegaard said shale energy would never push prices down in Europe as it has in the United States while Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnick warned Brussels must take on board popular opposition.

"People are not convinced that developing shale gas is without risk," Mr Potocnick said.

The summit draft otherwise rehearses a series of exhortations to review and improve EU energy policy, and to spend more on investment and development.

With national budgets under intense pressure at a time of austerity, that could prove problematic.

"In the current economic context, we must mobilise all our policies in support of competitiveness, jobs and growth," the draft says.

"The supply of affordable and sustainable energy ... is crucial in that respect."

Backed by leading European power firms, the chief executive of French group GDF Suez, Gerard Mestrallet, charged in Tuesday's Le Monde daily that European energy policy had failed and Europe was "destroying part of its energy industry".

He said: "It is urgent to redefine this policy, the ambitions and the means."

He argued that the European Union had failed with regard to its three announced objectives: the fight against climate warming, improving competitiveness, and the security of supply.

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