Extracting shale gas has environmental consequences and puts pressure on scarce water resources, requiring strict monitoring and regulation, energy and water experts said, reports Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The United States has taken the lead in shale gas exploitation, and it is ‘only a matter of time’ before other countries follow, according to Andreas Lindström, team leader of the water, energy and food nexus at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

“Before that, we need to first understand clearly the impact of such extraction, devise policies based on that knowledge, and if feasible, do it in the most environmentally friendly way possible,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

Extraction process dangers

In a report released this week, SIWI highlighted the possible dangers of the process used to extract shale gas, widely known as fracking.

“These questions include the climate impacts of methane leaks during fracking operations and of CO2 (carbon dioxide) released when methane is combusted (and) are still relatively unknown, as well as the risks of contamination and depletion of water resources,” the report said.

Large amounts of water are needed for drilling and fracking, which breaks rock formations in the earth using pressurised liquid and allows hydrocarbons to flow to the surface.

Shale resources in arid areas

Another report released on Tuesday by the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) warned that 38% of known global shale resources are in areas that are arid, or under high or extremely high levels of water stress.

“Furthermore, 386 million people live on the land over these shale plays, and in 40 percent of the shale plays, irrigated agriculture is the largest water user. Thus drilling and hydraulic fracturing often compete with other demands for freshwater, which can result in conflicts with other water users,” the WRI report said.

SIWI’s Lindström fears that countries identified in the WRI report – like China and South Africa – where shale resources are located in areas of water stress will start extracting them soon.

Ahead of that, there is an urgent need for scientific data on the impacts and a governance regime that promotes best practice, he said.

Corporate Cooperation

The WRI report argued that the challenges highlight ‘a strong business case for strategic company engagement in sustainable water management at local and regional levels’.

“They also point to a need for companies to work with governments and other sectors to minimise environmental impacts and water resources depletion,” it added.

Lindström, who co-authored the SIWI report, said very little research has been carried out on the new technologies used in fracking. But there are signs that large-scale extraction is detrimental to water resources in water-stressed areas, such as the US state of Texas.

Sharing knowledge base

Academic expertise is also lacking on the effects of the chemicals being used, and the seismic implications of fracking, he said.

Companies engaged in fracking, however, already have a large knowledge base, Lindström noted, and the first step should be sharing that with the scientific community ‘so we can figure out what is really going on’.

Peter Gleick, who heads the California-based Pacific Institute, a think tank on sustainable environmental practices, agreed more data on fracking is needed.

Global environment check-list

Governments should also consider developing an internationally accepted check list for environmental assessments that has the oil industry onboard, he said.

“Countries need to monitor and regulate the water (used in the process) and how it is discharged,” he said.

According to Gleick, disclosures that are made on the fracking process today are voluntary. Transparent reporting should be made mandatory, so companies do not have the option of cherry picking data, he said.

South Africa and China interested

The bulk of fracking operations around the world are carried out in North America, with only around 100 of the 6 000 or so wells located outside the region.

But other large energy users like China, South Africa and some European countries including Poland have shown interest in joining the club.

So far there is relatively limited data on how much fracking contributes to global energy production. However, the International Energy Agency predicts that natural gas production will increase by 43% in the next decade.

SIWI’s Lindström said a large part of that will come from fracking.

China’s energy plan

World Bank officials said China’s new five-year energy plan due out in 2015 outlines the county’s fracking possibilities.

“But we are working with them to include the impact on water (from the process) and what other options are available,” said Diego Rodriguez, a senior World Bank economist.

Lindström said assessing the potential impacts at the planning stage was a welcome move, but governments still tended to choose cheap energy over clean energy.

“We have a system geared for fossil fuel consumption, (and) because of that, there is a built-in resistance on the part of governments to such dialogue, especially when the cheaper option is not the best option,” he explained.

Feasible energy choice

According to Kandeh Yumkella, a UN Under-Secretary-General and CEO of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, natural gas is likely to remain a feasible energy choice at least in the medium term because of its low cost.

Awareness about the possible dangers of fracking should be spread more widely, he believes.

“Governments are not bold enough take such steps on their own – we need civil society to put pressure on them to hold them accountable,” he said.

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