The Middle East should think twice about fracking

Fracking oil rig shale.jpg
Copyright: Dermot Tatlow/Panos

Speed read

  • Several water scarce Middle East and North African countries plan to start fracking
  • A SciDev.Net debate reflected water contamination and other concerns
  • Techniques that do not use water should be explored, as should solar power

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MENA countries must take a hard look at risks and alternatives to the controversial shale gas extraction process.
Securing energy resources is critical for fuelling development, but deciding which types of energy to invest in will affect a country’s future in many ways — and not all are good when it comes to shale gas.

Four countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia — are planning to extract shale gas, and one, Algeria, is said to have already started.

The chief executive of Algeria’s state-owned energy company, Sonatrach, said in a radio interview that the country is investing $70 billion over 20 years to exploit shale gas in the southern desert.

These plans have stirred debate in the region about the environmental and health impacts of shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. The most important concern is that it requires huge amounts of potable water — each fracking process uses about 2 to 5 million gallons — but most MENA countries have water scarcity, and 15 out of 19 are facing water poverty. [1]

The debate has become heated over the past four months, as Algerian citizens have stepped up protests calling for a halt to fracking. 

On 13 May, SciDev.Net’s MENA edition took the debate online to discuss the impact of fracking on the region. Another aim of the debate was to explore how extracting companies and countries can monitor and manage these impacts. The discussion also raised questions about whether shale gas extraction should be a priority as a future source of energy in such a sunny and arid region suitable for solar.

We convened three panellists: Sufyan Tell, a Jordanian environmentalist and former chief technical advisor in the UN Development Programme (UNDP); Salah Hafez, a geophysicist and chair of the National Petroleum Company in Egypt; and Samir Mahmoud, professor of journalism at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, who has a special interest in the petrochemicals sector in Arab countries.

In the run-up to the debate, we published two viewpoints on the environmental impacts of shale gas in MENA and how fracking impacts can be managed, and we also published a feature article on the feasibility of shale gas extraction and future techniques in MENA.

Most comments submitted during the two hours of the online discussion reflected a need to better understand the issue. Some participants asked if fracking is the only technique available for exploiting shale gas, and if scientists expect the process to become cleaner in the future.

Fracking and its impacts

Shale gas is natural gas trapped in the earth’s shale (sedimentary rock) formations. It has become a new stock of fossil fuel that some believe emits fewer greenhouse gases than coal. The United States has led in shale extraction, which took off there in 2010.

Fracking is the most popular technique used to extract shale gas: it works by drilling as deep as 3,000 metres into shale formations and injecting a mixture of water, silica and up to 700 different chemicals at high pressure to fracture rocks and release the gas they contain. [2]

There is evidence that this has many impacts on the environment. Large quantities of methane are released into the atmosphere during the drilling process, and there is also groundwater contamination, either from methane escaping or from the chemicals pumped into shale rocks. It is difficult and costly to treat the water used during fracking so that it is safe to re-use.

And then there’s the traffic: transporting equipment can affect the quality of life for residents near drilling sites.

Lack of regulations

For MENA, an arid region that depends on groundwater, a high risk of contamination is unacceptable. Even countries that are well off in surface water supplies are relying more on groundwater to meet rising demand. So as one participant in our debate asked, if contamination is likely to happen, how could the region deal with it? 
“If the well is drilled in the right way, with the right precautions, contamination couldn’t happen,” said Hafez in defence of the process. But how can the industry make sure this is the case, asked Mahmoud, when there are no regulations for monitoring companies working on extraction, and no laws that penalise companies that might let this happen?

Hafez’s view is that countries planning to allow fracking need strict laws for monitoring companies working on shale gas extraction, and need to ensure that they will pay for cleaning up any contamination.

But others said that regulations are bound to be flouted in MENA countries, and strict laws could compromise the economic feasibility of shale gas.

Looking at alternatives

Some participants argued that as the prices of oil and gas decrease, fracking is becoming less economic, so other, cleaner extraction techniques are the answer.

Here the debate revealed promising techniques that are still being assessed in the lab. Using lasers or plasma gasification (which converts organic matter into synthetic gas and solid waste) for drilling are two examples — neither technique involves water or chemicals. But they are a long way from field rollout.

In the meantime, some multinational companies are looking at using saline groundwater or sea water for drilling, instead of potable water. They are also developing chemical mixtures that are more environmentally friendly and less hazardous to health.

But given the current significant hazards associated with fracking, MENA countries should rethink making it a priority for energy investment. It might be both economic and cleaner in the future, but it is still a fossil fuel source.

Our debate participants mentioned investment in renewables, and especially solar energy, as more economically competitive options, especially as prices are dropping and most MENA countries have sunny days almost all year.

The world will not be weaned off fossil fuels in the near future, so shale gas is one energy source we might need to depend on. But MENA countries have to invest more in studying its extraction impacts before committing energy budgets to fracking.

Bothina Osama is regional coordinator of SciDev.Net’s Middle East and North Africa edition.