In a judgment undoubtedly with consequences for the fracking industry in the EU, the ECJ held yesterday in Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen, Case C-531/13. Rohöl-Aufsuchungs AG had obtained authorisation to undertake exploratory drilling within the territory of the Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen (Austria) up to a depth of 4 150 metres, without environmental impact assessment. The Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen and 59 other persons have challenged that decision before the Verwaltungsgerichtshof (Administrative Court).
The EIA Directive‘s key element is that not all projects are subject to mandatory EAI. Only projects listed in Annex I of the Directive are subject to a mandatory EIA. Annex I lists for example crude-oil refineries, thermal and nuclear power stations which fulfill certain production or output thresholds. Projects listed in Annex II of the Directive, are subject to a screening procedure of the Member States. Screening is commonly referred to as the process by which a decision is taken on whether or not an EIA is required for a particular project. The competent authority in the Member States can make this decision either based on a case-by-case examination or by establishing thresholds or criteria, or both.
‘Extraction of petroleum and natural gas for commercial purposes where the amount extracted exceeds 500 tonnes/day in the case of petroleum and 500 000 cubic metres/day in the case of gas’ is included in Annex I, sub 14. However the Court held that exploratory drilling even if by nature it is ‘commercial’ (lest it be carried out purely for research purposes), does not meet the conditions of Annex I entry 14, for that provision links the obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment to the quantities of petroleum and natural gas earmarked for extraction. Prior to an exploratory drilling operation, the actual presence of hydrocarbons cannot be determined with certainty. An exploratory drilling operation is carried out in order to establish the presence of hydrocarbons and, where they are found, to determine the quantity and ascertain, through a trial production, whether or not a commercial operation is feasible. Thus, it is only on the basis of an exploratory drilling operation that the quantity of hydrocarbons that can be extracted per day can be determined. Moreover, the quantity of hydrocarbons earmarked for extraction in such a trial, as well as its duration, are restricted to the technical needs arising from the objective of establishing the feasibility of a deposit.
No mandatory EIA therefore on the basis of Annex I. However, Annex II, in entry 2 d), includes ‘Deep drillings, in particular:(i) geothermal drilling;(ii) drilling for the storage of nuclear waste material; (iii) drilling for water supplies; with the exception of drillings for investigating the stability of the soil’. Exploratory drilling falls under that entry. With reference to previous case-law, the ECJ emphasises that notwithstanding the discretion enjoyed by national authorities vis-a-vis projects included in Annex II, the characteristics of a project must be assessed, inter alia, in relation to its cumulative effects with other projects. Failure to take account of the cumulative effect of one project with other projects must not mean in practice that they all escape the obligation to carry out an assessment when, taken together, they are likely to have significant effects on the environment. With this approach the ECJ has countered the salami effect: the artificial splitting up of projects which do not individually meet EIA thresholds but which do so on a cumulative basis.
There are roughly 30 probes for gas extraction within the area of the Marktgemeinde Straßwalchen. The ECJ does not take the final decision as to whether an EIA therefore had to be carried out, for that is for the national court to be decided, however it is quite likely that the cumulative effect of these 30 probes does lead to a requirement for EIA (which will have to look beyond municipal borders) once it started being clear that the area concerned is a hotbed for such exploratory drillings.