Aug 28 2012

Global Responses to Hydraulic Fracturing

Published by at 10:38 pm under Uncategorized

Days ago, the state of Victoria in Australia banned the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Today, Mexico permitted a significant project allowing use of non-hydraulic fracturing, an emerging alternative means to liberate embedded shale gas. These developments, and others like them, reflect growing engagement of fracking around the globe.

In the U.S., hydraulic fracturing exists in a rarified regulatory prism. It couples 1940’s technology with 21st century challenges. But by luck of a series of legislative loopholes, it largely eludes meaningful federal regulation in the U.S.. Hydraulic fracturing is hardly a technology for releasing untapped and otherwise trapped reserves of natural gas in the United States alone.

Globally, it is fair to say that regulation of fracking is patchwork. Some nations, including China, welcome it, seeing it as an essential feature of economic sustainability. Others, like France, have imposed a moratoriam, viewing it as a Trojan Horse of economic development, harboring too many secrets and risks. The response at the subnational level largely follows this pattern. Texas hales the potential of fracking, while Vermont decries it. The Northern Territory in Australia sees it as a job creator, while New South Wales worries about chemical constituents in water used in the fracking process.

Policies and places aside, the common global denominator to fracking is water, and lots of it. Fracking is already well on its way to becoming a top user of freshwater globally, consuming billions of gallons daily. Fracking uses a high-pressure blast of millions of gallons of water, sand, and a cocktail of up to 200 chemicals to create a shockwave to break open cracks deep in the earth, releasing embeeded natural gas deposits. Polluted water returns, raising the need for treatment. Moreover, chemicals and the gas have been found to leak into water supplies.

The international community, as it were, is yet to identify fracking as a practice worth multilateral response. There is no international agreement on fracking standards, no agreement on trade in natural gas derived from fracking. Indeed, fracking was all but ignored at Rio. But fracking raises pollution and human rights issues corresponding with rights to water and a suitable environment, and to information, participation, and access to justice. So, as with fracking regulation in the United States, fracking policies globally are underway, if unpredicatable.

A growing suite of countries appear to be betting their energy future on fracking shale gas. Poland is leading the way, thought to have among the largest resident reserves of shale oil gas. Denmark has commissioned most of its shale gas reserves for development. China – which is estimated to have fifty percent more shale gas reserves than the United States – has recently permitted fracking for the first time. The United Kingdom has recently given the green light to fracking shale gas. Some countries, like Ireland and New Zealand, are promoting chemical-free fracking. Non-hydraulic technologies that use much less water are on the horizon, too. On August 28th, Mexico announced that it has granted a permit to the U.S. Chimera Energy Corporation to deploy its new non-hydraulic shale oil extraction technology in Mexico’s Chicontepec Basin. The Chicontepec Basin is considered Mexico’s largest certified hydrocarbon reserve, totaling more than 139 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

A handful of countries have banned fracking. On July 1, 2011, two week shy of Bastille Day, France became the first country to ban fracking outright moratorium on fracking. This is despite some predictions of possible fossil fuel resources of up to 100 million cubic meters of shale oil in the Paris basin and five billion cubic meters of shale gas in a bed across the south of France. Companies were given two months either to demonstrate that they were not engaged in fracking, or surrender mining licenses. Bulgaria has also imposed a moratorium, forbidding Chevron from using fracking to search of large seams of embedded natural gas there.

Subnational developments are notable. Australia has a booming coal seam gas industry with around $50 billion worth of projects underway in the country’s northeastern Queensland state. Yet both the States of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia have banned fracking. Neither, however, hold much potential for fracking. As mentioned, Victoria enacted its ban days ago, on August 24, 2012. The moratorium would remain until Australia’s federal government develops a national regulatory framework for regulating coal seam gas and hydraulic fracturing. Quebec has suspended fracking, as has the Karoo region in South Africa, thought to be one of the nation’s most promising areas for development of deep mine natural gas extraction. Vermont banned hydraulic fracturing in May 2012, the U.S. first state to do so.

The debate over fracking currently enjoys wide congress throughout the globe. Global developments are worth watching as international, national and subnational governmental bodies wrestle with the environmental, energy, and economics issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.

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