BRUSSELS, May 22 (UPI) -- The European Union will carefully weigh the risks of shale gas development this year but also needs to stem high energy prices, the union's energy chief says.
European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, in an interview published Monday in the German daily Die Welt, strongly signaled member countries are embracing the idea that developing cheap shale gas may be necessary if Europe's struggling economy is to remain competitive, despite the environmental risks.
"If we in Europe do not respond to the energy price gap in global competition, we will not be able to compete in 10 years," he said.
The comments came as the European Council was to meet to discuss energy costs and their effect on Europe's competitiveness, growth and job creation.
High on their energy agenda will be the completion of a single European energy market, the search for private infrastructure investment and "the challenge" of high energy prices -- especially in light of the boom of shale gas in the United States.
Oettinger's interview comments also came as the European Commission is working on legislation due by this year laying out clear rules on shale gas exploration and exploitation.
That effort comes amid strong protests from environmentalists over the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the mining method used to extract shale gas.
EU studies last year determined that fracking generally imposes a "larger environmental footprint" than conventional gas development and can lead to groundwater contamination, water resource depletion and air and noise emissions if too highly concentrated.
Thus, Oettinger said, an EU move to support shale gas development on economic grounds must also be accompanied by tough environmental standards.
"The protection of areas where drinking water and groundwater occurs ... is absolutely correct," he said. "At the EU level, we will look at the issue of fracking and environmental protection in more detail this year."
With Europe struggling through a lingering recession, it is vital the bloc keep its energy costs down, the commissioner told Die Welt.
"I am glad that the waves of the shale gas revolution striking in the U.S. have arrived in Brussels and Germany," he said. "According to current projections, the Americans by 2017 will be the largest gas producer in the world, and by 2020 might produce more oil than Saudi Arabia.
"Energy prices are much higher in Europe than in the U.S. and I do not think that we will manage to get them to the same level in the near future. But maybe one day we will have gas prices that are only twice as high and no longer four times higher as now."
Oettinger also said his home country of Germany should reject moves to ban fracking.
Under a compromise unveiled in March, the government is proposing to ban fracking only near water supplies or in national parks and conservation areas, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Germany shouldn't miss an opportunity to tap gas reserves under its own soil, Oettinger said, adding, "If we allow drilling, we will be far wiser in a few years and will be better informed about the costs. That should be advisable in an engineering country like Germany."