Algeria to go ahead with controversial shale gas exploration

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An aerial view of a shale oil drilling rig. Photo – Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Algeria announced on Sunday it will go ahead with plans to develop its shale gas reserves which are thought to be around 600 trillion cubic feet (17 trillion cubic metres), around four times greater than its current known gas reserves. Environmentalists, citing long-term ecological damage, denounced the move.

According to the BP Statistical Review of Energy, Algeria was the world’s eighth-largest natural gas producer in 2011, but a surge in domestic consumption is denting its exports. Official forecasts suggest local demand will eat up all the country’s production by 2019.

Algeria remains almost totally dependant on hydrocarbons which account for 90% of its exports.

The country’s lawmakers are working on introducing a new hydrocarbons bill in the coming weeks which will encourage the exploration of unconventional gas and oil resources.

However, ecologists are concerned about the effect of shale gas production on the environment.

According to Chems Eddine Chitour, director of fossil energy development at Algiers’ Ecole Polytechnique, the method used to obtain the fuel trapped in formations of shale rock could spell a geological disaster and contaminate the largely desert country’s water supplies.

“Induced hydraulic fracturing weakens the ground and the subsoil, making earthquakes more likely,” he said.

“It mobilises vast quantities of water and will permanently destroy the ecosystem of the Sahara. Injecting 15,000 cubic metres (530,000 cubic fee) per well, with a well every 100 metres (yards), is catastrophic for a country with such water scarcity,” the Algerian environmentalist added.

Chitour, like many ecologists, believes that the chemicals used in the injection risked polluting the water table.

However, Abdelmadjid Attar, former Sonatrach CEO, disapproved the concerns and insisted that “conventional hydrocarbon exploitation carries the same environmental risks.”

Algeria’s hydrocarbons company Sonatrach has signed agreements with the Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell, Italian Eni and Canadian Talisman to develop its shale gas potential.

In 2011, Sonatrach drilled its first shale gas wells in the Ahnet basin near Tamanrasset, about 2,000 kilometres south of Algiers. On Thursday, Sonatrach announced a new gas discovery in the southeast, near Illizi, and will also begin offshore exploration in 2014.

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