ENERGYSCIENCE -- September 26, 2012 at 12:10 PM ET
Fracking Goes Global
The Cuadrilla shale fracking facility in Preston, Lancashire in the U.K. Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.
On Saturday afternoon, a handful of tanned twenty-somethings straggled into Washington D.C.'s Meridian Hill Park to protest the controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Some wore T-shirts that read, "What the Frack?" Others passed out stickers. And after some schmoozing, they formed a line, thrust homemade posters toward the sky and began chanting the phrase, "Ban fracking now."
At the same time, similar protests were unfolding from Johannesburg to Paris and in cities across the U.S -- all part of a social-media-led campaign dubbed the Global Frackdown. In Canada, demonstrators donned hazmat suits and implored energy giants like Exxon Mobil and Shell to stop "fracking with [their] water." In Europe, protesters displayed cups of murky water and signs slamming Chevron.
The event was part of a growing international effort to ban the drilling technique, which involves shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to free hydrocarbons trapped in shale formations.
The controversy surrounding fracking is nothing new. Supporters, including the oil and gas industry, call it a safe, environmentally-sound way to extract energy supplies while creating jobs at home and reducing our reliance on coal and foreign oil; opponents say the practice contaminates nearby water sources and releases high doses of methane into the atmosphere.
Much of the public discussion has centered on fracking in the U.S., where technological advances over the past three decades have made it easier and cheaper to tap hard-to-reach pockets of natural gas. But as drilling and energy firms continue to develop better technology and tools, other countries are starting to see potential in their own reserves, and that's fueling fresh debates.
Here, briefly, is a global look at some fracking hotspots, rounded up from various news outlets:
With the world's fifth largest natural gas stores, South Africa is poised to become a large player in the natural gas market. It took a big step toward that end earlier this month when the government lifted a year-old fracking moratorium. Developing even just a tenth of its resources, energy experts believe, could boost the country's economy by $24-billion a year, according to this Bloomberg news story.
But there are still hurdles to overcome, including chronic water shortages and mounting concerns from local and foreign opponents.
And there's another challenge, according to this Huffington Post report. Underground rights in South Africa belong to the government, so farmers in the Karoo Basin, where the gas exists, have little financial incentive to back drilling operations. The Karoo is also home to a team of state-of-the-art space telescopes, and some scientists have raised concerns in the past that pollution from drilling and trucks going to and from wells could interfere with their projects. The biggest fear is that drilling will contaminate the Karoo's already scarce water supply and spoil a unique ecosystem that is home to livestock, wildlife and some of the world's most ancient human fossils.
This report, released by the Republic of South Africa's Department of Mineral Resources, rebuts that claim.
China, the world's largest energy consumer, has for decades relied on coal production to power its cities and fuel its economic rise, and that's left its streets and skyways choked with smog. As a result, leaders have begun turning toward natural gas as a clean-burning energy solution.
Though China has vast untapped shale gas deposits, they exist in western regions, where water is scarce. But local officials are optimistic that new technology will allow fracking operations to recycle water, and researchers are now exploring chemical alternatives to use in the process, according to this piece by PRI's The World.
Still, as drilling efforts begin to take root -- state-owned PetroChina signed its first production agreement with Shell in March -- opposition is also beginning to stir, and at least one protest was held in recent months.
For now, the government is keeping its natural gas hopes low; energy production from shale gas will cover an estimated two to three percent of the country's total projected needs by 2020. But given the rate of industry advances, particularly in the U.S., it's not hard to imagine that soon changing.
Europe is pockmarked by rich natural gas deposits, but so far, fracking efforts have either proven too costly or been quelled by leaders concerned with the potential risks to water supplies and nearby communities. The practice is currently banned in France, though the French government hasn't completely ruled it out for the future, according to the Washington Post. The U.K. may have vast offshore gas reserves (likely enough, say experts, to one day turn England entirely energy self-sufficient), and Poland and Bulgaria each have sizable shale deposits.
But in many cases, fracking projects are still too costly to prove worthwhile. According to the International Energy Agency, the cost of drilling a well in Poland, for instance, is around $12 million, or three times as much as it costs in Texas. Fracking supporters hope that continued advances in the U.S. will drive those costs down in coming years.
In Canada's far western regions, a frenzy has erupted over natural gas. Loose drilling restrictions combined with large financial incentives for provincial governments have transformed Alberta and British Columbia into havens for oil and gas companies. The result has been some of the most intensive fracking anywhere on the planet, according to ProPublica.
Meanwhile, Quebec currently has a moratorium on fracking, and last Thursday its natural resources minister told reporters that the newly elected separatist government wants to place even harsher restrictions on tapping the province's large shale gas deposits.
Since the country's boom began in the 1990s, it has faced struggles similar to those unfolding in the U.S. - namely balancing the economic benefits of drilling with repeated reports of water contamination and air pollution.
Still, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has said it expects gas production from shale and other sources to more than triple in the next decade.
Argentina houses the world's third largest known natural gas deposits after China and the U.S., and lax government restrictions are sending oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil to the country's western shale fields in droves, NPR reported in May.
The fracking boom has touched down in India, too, via surging demand for a tiny bean called guar. For centuries, Indian farmers have used guar to feed their families and cattle, and in recent decades it has surfaced as a vital thickener in commercial foods like ice cream and pastries. The same substance, it turns out, stiffens water so well that it can carry sand sideways into wells drilled by horizontal fracking.
India grows about 85 percent of the world's guar, according to this New York Times report, and with demand from fracking on the rise, armies of small farmers are being recruited to ensure that supply can keep up. That appears to be good news for local guar farmers, at least for now.