Syed Rashid Husain
Shale gas — or the emergence of fracking technology to be precise — has revolutionized the energy world. It has given a sense of the otherwise elusive supply security to the industrialized world.
The story began in the US. This shale gas revolution in America has turned around the industry. Today it contributes to one-third of the United States’ gas supplies. By 2030, it might provide half.
US oil and natural gas production is increasing at its fastest rate in five decades, courtesy of the shale revolution. The Bakken formation, one of the country’s largest shale gas reservoirs, produced 0.1 million barrels per day in 2007. In 2012, it produced over one million barrels per day. This rapid growth is set to continue over the next decade too. BP expects North American shale gas production to increase by 5.3 percent annually (on average) until 2030.
But this is only half of the story. Shale gas and water make a disastrous, rather explosive, mix. Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water, combined with chemicals and proppants such as sand into the ground, to crack open the shales and this is now a real concern. Hydraulic fracking, which is currently opening up untold oil and gas resources in Texas, has run into a potential problem there because of the long-term drought that has afflicted the Lone Star State in recent years.
As early as 2011, according to an article published by First Enercast Financial, oil and gas drillers started to recognize that they might have a problem because of a shortage of water. The problem is exacerbated because the unique geology of the Eagle Ford formation, where Texas gets much of its shale oil and gas, requires more water to frack open the product.
Water is an issue. Many say the next round of global wars could be to secure scarce water resources. A senior Canadian diplomat once told this correspondent: “Look, we are a water rich country. And we know it fully well; the day there is a scarcity of water next door, we would find a pistol pointed at our head, to ensure a regular supply.”
Shale gas is a black hole for water, argue Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr in a paper, carried by Huffington Post. Exploiting the resource requires and pollutes massive amounts. And because of this water footprint, France in2011 banned hydraulic fracturing. Today, the United States’ water resources are diminishing according to 2012 Yale Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Exploiting shale gas may exacerbate these problems, Biswas and Kirchherr underline.
The typical horizontal shale well requires 5 million gallons of water to complete, according to Chesapeake Energy, which has fracked more shale wells in Ohio than any other company. The International Energy Agency (IEA) too agrees.
The sheer volume of water consumed is not a problem per se in water-rich states such as Pennsylvania. However, it may become a major obstacle in water-parched states such as Texas. With shale gas exploitation exploding the water consumed by Texas’ Barnett Shale will increasingly compete with other industries and private consumers, the paper argues. Environmentalists also note that water used in fracking cannot be treated and reintroduced to the water supply where it eventually will cycle through to become rain.
Lea Harper, founder of the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water, an anti-fracking organization, said “water is being wasted in a one-time use for a single industry.”
“We cannot make more water,” she said. “We can find renewable sources of energy.”
Other countries are also joining in the shale bandwagon, making the water issue acute. China is reported to have huge, un tap huge resource. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is planning to drill about seven test wells for shale gas this year.
“We know where the areas are,” Minister Al-Naimi said at a conference in Hong Kong, referring to the shale deposits. “We have rough estimates of over 600 trillion cubic feet of unconventional and shale gas so the potential is very huge and we plan to exploit it.”
Saudi Aramco has been searching for shale gas in the northwest of the country as it explores for unconventional resources such as sour gas in the oil-rich eastern region and in the Empty Quarter deserts, Senior Vice President of Upstream Amin Nasser told a conference March 10 in Manama. However, even Aramco is conceding that finding the necessary amount of water will be difficult, Nasser said at the Manama conference.
Faced with this challenge, oil and gas companies have been attempting to overcome the problem by recycling fracking fluid. Texas Tribune reported that a new technology, dubbed “waterless fracking,” could address the problem of water use in fracking operations.
A Canadian company called GasFrac is using a combination of gelled propane and butane to conduct fracking, without the use of water. The technology is new and may cost more than conventional hydraulic fracking. And in addition to propane, some companies are also experimenting with carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
However, besides cost, some other issues are with this prospect too. An article in Scientific American discusses environmental issues involving waterless fracking. Waterless fracking produces less wastewater, which is a positive environmental advantage over conventional fracking. However since water is used to produce and liquefy propane, the overall water savings for the process are unclear. Propane, being an explosive chemical, does also pose some safety issues, though GasFrac claims that it has multiple safety protocols.
Oil companies working in Saudi Arabia are also alive to the issues. “It’s here in Saudi Arabia where we are developing our best technology,” Aaron Gatt, characterization group president at Schlumberger told the audience at the Manama conference. “We are trying to find solutions to produce shale gas in Saudi Arabia with the least amount of water.”
The fracking industry is still in its infancy. In order to deliver the revolution that it has promised and in fact unleashed too, it will have to overcome many obstacles. The water issue is just one that needs immediate attention — all around the globe.