All Hail Shale

As Putin's army masses in the East, Europe starts to rethink its opposition to fracking.

Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, have spent years trying to persuade European countries to hold off on expanding shale gas production for the simplest of reasons: Such a shift would pose a long-term threat to Russia's energy dominance over Europe. But the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula is giving Europe new enthusiasm for fracking -- and potentially bringing about the exact outcome Russia has spent years trying to avoid.

The Old Continent has been largely reluctant to use the drilling technology that has enabled the U.S. energy boom despite indications that Europe sits atop plentiful shale gas reserves. Only a handful of countries, led by Poland and the U.K., have seriously considered it, while several have banned fracking altogether. There are growing signs, however, that Russia's heavy-handed antics could be changing Europe's energy calculus in fundamental ways.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament passed energy legislation that included tougher environmental rules for oil and gas exploration -- but specifically excluded shale gas projects from the new regulations. This week, Poland passed tax breaks meant to juice shale gas exploration there. Big European business lobbies, including steel-makers and the EU employers' association, just called for the continent to embrace shale gas as a way out of its energy straitjacket.

"Given the absolute necessity for Europe to diversify its sources of supply of gas and to find solutions to the huge energy price differential with its main competitors, we see no alternative but to proceed as rapidly as possible with shale gas exploitation as part of the energy mix in Europe while retaining all the precautions necessary in pursuing this approach," Gordon Moffatt, director general of European steel lobby Eurofer said in a statement Thursday, a day after the group sent an open letter to all European heads of state and government urging a shift in energy policy.

Europe's growing support for fracking isn't entirely new. Business groups across the continent were calling for more shale gas production even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered fears that Moscow could use energy as a weapon to prevent European powers from intervening. Even in France, home to some of the continent's most ardent environmentalist groups, fracking's high-profile defenders include Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

But in the past, fracking proponents zeroed in on economic arguments, namely the fear that European industrial firms are losing ground to their U.S. counterparts, which are blessed with relatively cheap and abundant natural gas that serves as both fuel and a key ingredient of petrochemicals like plastics and gas-derived diesel. Now, though, energy security fears unleashed by Russia's aggressive behavior have joined economic arguments in fracking proponents' arsenal.

"It's been a shot in the arm for Europe, in a way it wasn't in the previous two gas cutoffs" in 2006 and 2009, said Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of the energy security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). "This is a significant reinvigoration of efforts that are already under way, but has served to make the public and policymakers to think more creatively about the energy options they have."

Putting the focus on the security of energy supplies, as Putin's approach to Ukraine seems to have done, could make it easier to muster support across Europe for the controversial practice. That's because the economic arguments business groups brandish to advocate for fracking -- bringing energy prices closer to U.S. levels -- don't pass muster.

Even if Europe developed its abundant shale gas resources, most studies suggest that Europe's different geology, including deeper shale deposits, would make European shale gas a much more expensive proposition than U.S. shale gas. Other differences with the United States, such as the regulatory framework, access to capital, and supply of drilling rigs, also make a European repeat of the U.S. shale gale an uphill struggle.

Still, worries about energy security, fueled by Russia's behavior, are reshaping the debate. And that is especially ironic because Putin and top Russian energy officials have spent years trying to discredit fracking, calling it environmentally risky and financially unsustainable. Most industry observers say Russia's attitudes toward fracking are less about genuine environmental concerns and more about the threat that it poses to the country's energy-export business.

Putin impressed foreign observers at an annual dinner in 2011 with a detailed diatribe against the practice, sketching out the perils of fracking on dinner napkins. Alexander Medvedev, deputy chairman at state-dominated energy company Gazprom, has also railed against the environmental dangers and higher costs associated with fracking. Alexey Miller, Gazprom's chief executive, famously called the U.S. fracking boom "a bubble that will burst soon."

"Lots of the largest conventional oil and gas producers have tried to pour cold water on fracking technologies and raise concerns about its environmental impact. And you can see the obvious reason why, particularly if they're in a precarious fiscal position like Russia where more supplies on the market potentially erodes their pricing power," Rosenberg of CNAS said.

Until now, environmental concerns about fracking, including possible threats to groundwater and the environmental footprint of intensive drilling in densely populated areas, have ruled it out in many countries with potentially promising shale resources. France, for instance, has banned fracking, while Germany has essentially done so. Bulgaria, reliant on imports of Russian gas, also outlawed the practice, ostensibly on environmental grounds.

Other countries, notably the U.K., Poland, Romania, and Ukraine, have all promoted shale gas exploration to varying degrees. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been especially vocal about the risk Europe faces from relying on too much Russian gas; Polish tax reforms this week are meant to make domestic gas production easier.

Ukraine's hopes of using its own shale reserves to minimize reliance on Russian energy imports have been hit hard precisely by the crisis. Kiev signed a pair of multibillion-dollar deals with Chevron and Shell last year to explore for shale gas, but the unrest, change of government, and Russian incursion have put those plans on hold for now.

Given the political, financial, geological, and regulatory challenges Europe faces in its quest to replicate the U.S. shale boom, even Russian aggression may not be enough to kick-start fracking in Europe. But as the continent prepares to revamp its energy policy for the next generation, security of supply is looming ever more important.

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National Security

Exclusive: Inside the Fiery Crash of Jolly 12

When an elite Air Force helicopter rescue crew plummeted into a Japanese forest, it didn't just kill an airman and spark an inferno -- it stirred up a diplomatic hornet’s nest for the U.S.

Two U.S. Air Force helicopters looped over a simulated car crash scene in Japan last summer, pulling figure 8's less than 150 feet above a heavily wooded forest. The aircrews had just dropped off a team of four elite pararescue jumpers to the scene for a training exercise, and were roaring overhead in tandem at more than 90 mph. The maneuver was common for such missions, where the "PJs" and the aircrews that transport them practice how to evacuate wounded troops from a battlefield while under fire.

While both HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters circled over the car wreck, one of the helicopters suddenly swerved out of position. When the second helicopter shifted course in response, the pilot of the first Pave Hawk tried to veer away to avoid a possible collision. It was a fatal overreaction: The aircraft, carrying three other personnel, had descended enough to collide with the 50-foot-high trees below. The $38 million Pave Hawk -- call sign "Jolly 12" -- careened downward, smashed into the forest's floor, and rolled onto its right side before coming to rest. The downed aircraft burst into flames, cooking off rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition.

"Once they were in the turn I saw that ... basically they lost trim, their tail sunk down in a very low position, they were at a high angle of bank with their nose pointing up in the air," the co-pilot of the second Pave Hawk later told investigators, according to military documents obtained by Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act. "The next I heard was my flight lead saying 'What the f---? What the f---?' ... at which point I could see the smoke and the crash site just on the other side of the ridge."

The Aug. 5, 2013 crash in a secluded section of Okinawa near Camp Hansen killed Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Smith, 30, the flight engineer aboard Jolly 12. He was a married father with two girls who had served two previous combat deployments to Afghanistan, according to his family. The three other Air Force personnel aboard the helicopter -- including the pilot and co-pilot -- were wounded in the crash, with the chopper's gunner sustaining such severe injuries that he spent three days at a military hospital on Okinawa's Camp Foster, according to military documents. The names of those three personnel -- as well as the crew members of the second helicopter -- were redacted from the Air Force records obtained by FP.

Beyond the human toll, the wreck had serious diplomatic implications. It prompted U.S. commanders to temporarily ground all Pave Hawks -- the Air Force variant of the ubiquitous Black Hawk -- at a time when Okinawan civilians were already protesting the arrival of the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey, a cutting-edge aircraft that can take off like a helicopter, but fly with the speed and range of an airplane. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera demanded that his U.S. counterparts give him proof that the helicopters were safe, a gesture likely intended to help him capitalize politically on the widespread public anger and concern over the deployment of the Ospreys. The Marines temporarily delayed a second shipment of Ospreys to Okinawa, but the aircraft arrived within a few weeks.

In January, the Air Force released a 34-page summary of their probe into the crash, which concluded that mechanical failures were not to blame. Instead, the investigative team headed by Brig. Gen. Steven Basham blamed the co-pilot of Jolly 12 for initially swerving out of position and the pilot for subsequently veering so low to the ground that his chopper collided with the trees below. The two moves, the board found, were factors "substantially contributing" to the disaster.

FP obtained not only the investigation summary, but more than 300 pages of witness statements, inspection reports, and photographs related to the crash. Combined, they provide a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the pressure-cooker world of pararescue. The "PJ" forces involved are the most elite emergency medical responders in the military, trained to parachute, dive, or rappel into chaotic situations to save lives, both during the day and at night. They have been credited with saving hundreds of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The forces involved in the Aug. 5 crash on Okinawa were with the Air Force's 33rd Rescue Squadron, which was preparing to return to Afghanistan. The Pave Hawk they flew was equipped with complex upgraded communications and navigation systems not standard on its sister aircraft, the Black Hawk. The Pave Hawk also carries 7.62mm and .50-caliber machine guns and a beefy cargo hook capable of carrying 8,000 pounds. For rescue missions, it has a hoist capable of pulling a 600-pound load from the battlefield while the helicopter hovers at 200 feet.

As part of the practice scenario, the PJs were supposed to land and evacuate a wounded man from an overturned car that had been tugged into place as a prop. Both helicopters dropped off the pararescuemen, and then circled overhead in a figure-8 pattern commonly known as a racetrack. Role players acting as insurgents walked toward the PJs, and the helicopters overhead simulated that they were coming under fire from the ground.

It was then that Jolly 12, the downed helicopter, broke right when the other Pave Hawk anticipated it turning left. The co-pilot of the second aircraft responded by maneuvering to the left of Jolly 12, catching the pilot of Jolly 12 off-guard. He veered away, triggering the complex string of events that ended with the Pave Hawk on the ground, engulfed in flames.

"Basically we just watched our Chalk 2 slam into the ground," the co-pilot of the other Pave Hawk later recalled to investigators, talking about Jolly 12. "After that we gathered our thoughts, knew what we had to do. We went immediately back to our [infiltration] point with the PJs, we called a 'knock it off,' told them we had a real world situation, Jolly 12 had crashed, and that we were coming in to infil PJs -- to exfil PJs from our simulated site and to infil them at the real world crash site."

The site -- about a quarter-mile from the planned landing zone -- was chaotic, the co-pilot said. The Air Force pararescuemen were hoisted down to the crash site, where a fire was growing rapidly. The co-pilot overhead was told that the gunner from the crashed helicopter had been seen on the ground, and was struggling with injuries he sustained, according to a transcribed copy of the Pave Hawk pilot's interview.

"He was just outside the wreckage staggering around," the co-pilot later recalled. "I could not see him. I could only relay what I heard on [the radio]. They packaged him up, said they didn't have eyes on anybody else, but that he was critical. And they made the call that he needed to be sent to a hospital immediately rather than us waiting around trying to see if we could find anybody else, that we had to get him to Foster immediately."

On the ground, the co-pilot of the downed helicopter was able to escape through an opening in the aircraft, although he was later unable to remember the details of how he got out, according to the accident investigation board report. The pilot was initially stuck, but he made it out of the Pave Hawk after taking off his life vest.

The gunner in the downed helicopter, meanwhile, was thrown between two seats in the back of the aircraft upon impact. He stumbled out of the wreckage by using the basket-like stretcher in the back of the Pave Hawk as a ladder to climb up and out of the helicopter's left-hand cabin door. It is not clear if any of them saw Smith, who was on the right-hand rear side of the Pave Hawk when it crashed and rolled onto its right side. It's also not clear if he died in the collision or the subsequent fire.

Some witness statements were removed from documents released to FP by Air Force legal staff. But the co-pilot of the other Pave Hawk told investigators that after they delivered the seriously injured gunner to the hospital, they "raged back" to the crash scene to provide additional help. The helicopter picked up the pilot and co-pilot of the downed Pave Hawk, along with a combat rescue officer who had been left on the scene to help. One PJ from the second Pave Hawk also had been left on the ground, and his aircrew was concerned he'd be harmed by the fire burning near the crash site. Photographs released to FP show heavily charred wreckage, destroyed trees and scorched earth.

The remains of Smith, the fallen airman, were found the following day, Air Force officials said. He had deployed to Afghanistan twice previously, and appeared in a 2012 photograph depicting a daring rescue of an injured commando from the notoriously violent town of Kamdesh. He and his wife, Jessica, also went above and beyond to look out for younger airmen, his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, later recalled.

"Smitty was a mentor to all the young airmen and pilots; he was a father figure to those that didn't have one," Ortiz said. "He and his wife took care of those in need. They always had lots of single airmen over to his house."

Top image by JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Other images released to Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act