What country will get fracked next?

As U.S. shale gas industry booms, other countries look to get in the game

By Nicholas Nehamas

Fracking isn’t a curse word — unless you’re an environmental activist.

Hydraulic fracturing is essentially the act of pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground in order to force out natural gas or petroleum. It’s most commonly used in shale rock deposits, where shale gas has been trapped underground for millennia.

Proponents say fracking will create jobs, lessen our dependence on carbon-spewing coal and open up previously inaccessible reserves of natural gas. Critics argue the process pollutes the environment, contaminates groundwater and creates unbearable levels of noise. Scientists say it can even cause earthquakes.

So far, fracking has only been done on a large scale in the U.S, which now gets thirty percent of its natural gas from shale. But shale and other non-conventional forms of natural gas are plentiful in other parts of the world too. Now Australia, Poland, China and a host of other countries have begun exploratory fracking.

Using data from the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), Latitude News created an interactive map of the countries with the biggest shale gas reserves. You can explore it below:

The EIA estimates the newly accessible shale gas will increase global natural gas reserves by 40 percent.

But getting all that gas out of the ground isn’t easy, despite the technological advances in fracking over the last 20 years, which have enabled energy companies to drill horizontally under populated areas. Argentina, for example, possesses more shale gas than the U.S. But a tumultuous political situation there has dimmed the prospects of foreign energy investment, according to Laszlo Varro, Head of Gas, Coal and Power Markets for the International Energy Agency (IEA), an autonomous inter-governmental policy adviser.

“From a geological point of view,” Varro tells Latitude News, “Argentina is exciting, at least as good as the U.S. But Argentina recently nationalized their biggest foreign investor [the Spanish company Repsol], so the investment risk is very high.”

Despite the uncertainty, President Cristina Fernandez recently sold the rights for shale gas exploration to the American company Chevron. Repsol subsequently filed suit against Chevron in federal court in New York.

Frack at your own risk

Varro says Europe also has promising reserves of shale gas. But political instability has discouraged companies from working in Ukraine, and France and Bulgaria have both announced bans on the practice. The UK only recently lifted a moratorium on fracking imposed after an energy company admitted it caused small earthquakes in northwestern England. Germany has also expressed doubts. Europe’s hesitancy to embrace fracking is analogous to concerns raised in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, where energy companies are eager to exploit the Marcellus slate formation.

People shout slogans and carry a banner that reads “Ban the shale gas tests through hydraulic fracturing” during a rally in central Sofia last January. Bulgaria subsequently banned fracking. (Reuters/svetelina Belutova)

Like the Eastern states, Varro says, “these countries are much more densely populated than most parts of the big oil and gas producing places in the U.S., and they don’t have a tradition of the energy industry working there.”

In Europe, Varro points to Poland as the most likely site of increased fracking, even though the government significantly downgraded its estimate of domestic shale gas reserves.

“What you need is a combination of good geology and hydro-policy,” Varro says, “and an oil and gas industry with high technical ability.”

This relationship is well developed in the U.S., Varro says, and Poland has a good head start over other European countries. It also helps that Poland would like to lessen its dependence on Russian energy.

Whatever happens, all these projects are still in the exploratory phase. We’re not likely to see major European shale gas production before 2020.

Fracking the Far East

Thanks to massive shale deposits in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, the U.S. is still the world leader in extracting shale gas. But the IEA believes China will probably become the U.S.’ biggest rival over the next 20 years. However, Varro says the geological data in China is not complete. (That’s also true in the U.S. where early last year the EIA reduced its estimate of shale gas reserves from 862 to 482 trillion cubic feet).

“Shale gas estimates are really estimates,” he cautions, “rough estimates, because it’s such an early phase of exploration.”

Besides, China’s government is moving slowly, and the biggest deposits are located in very dry areas in northwestern China. That’s a problem because a single hydrofracturing location requires 15-20 million litres of water, and shale gas extractions requires hundreds of frackings to be profitable. Some environmental organizations caution that fracking will lead to a “global water crisis.” Another potentially lucrative shale formation is located in the crowded Sichuan basin, which Varro calls the “bread basket” of China. Finally, unlike the U.S., China lacks a national pipeline system to move all that gas around the country once it’s been pumped out of the ground.

Even so, he says, “In terms of energy investment, anything that does not break the laws of physics the Chinese can do relatively quickly.”

Apart from China, we’re also likely to see significant fracking in Canada — because some American shale formations continue under the border — and Australia, which is exploiting not shale gas but cobalt methane, another non-conventional natural gas produced from coal seams.

But is it safe?

A host of news organizations, including Mother Jones and ProPublica, have done in-depth reporting on the environmental and safety risks posed by fracking. Mother Jones summarizes the objections of activists and some scientists:

At a time when the International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil-fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the Earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its own story. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes: eleven in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.

But Varro says he believes shale gas can be extracted without damage to the environment and local communities under a strictly enforced regulatory framework.

A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Flaring, or burning off excess gas, can release pollutants into the air, depending on the type of gas burned and the temperature of the fire, according to environmental activists. (Reuters/Les Stone)

For one, using pipes to transport water, instead of hundreds of trucks, can cut down on the often incredible amount of noise pollution produced by fracking. And he argues that companies must also do a better job of disclosing the chemicals they pump into the ground, and understand the structure of the terrain they are drilling into. Self-regulation, he says, won’t do the trick.

His arguments are in line with an IEA report called “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas,” which a New York Times editorial called “required reading for regulators and the industry.”

“The most likely problem of any leakage or contamination,” Varro explains, “is bad design, bad insulation, bad cementing and so on. These are not fancy technologies. Deep Horizon was caused by lots of small, stupid things added together. It wasn’t a tsunami hitting the rig.”

So if regulated, the industry says fracking will be all boon and no bane. But if it continues to boom with minimal government regulation, critics argue we could well be looking at the next wave of global environmental disasters.