By Reynald Du Berger
As a retired professor with an avid interest in energy issues, I am disheartened by the shale gas misinformation campaign being spread across the United States, Quebec, Europe, and most recently, Tunisia. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has dubbed the coming years as the “Golden Age of Gas,” which suggests this is an energy source that deserves to be seriously considered, not rejected based solely on myths and half-truths. With recent anti-shale statements from the Fédération Nationale de l’Electricité et du Gaz, Tunisie and comments from Mohamed Larbi Bouguerra, it’s clear that facts desperately need to be injected into the debate.
Mansour Cherni, the National Coordinator for the Fédération Nationale de l’Electricité et du Gaz, Tunisie, is asking Tunisians to reject shale gas development on the grounds that it “pollutes the ground, the air, and the water.” These assertions are false. Hydraulic fracturing, the technique that unlocks natural gas trapped in shale and other tight reservoirs deep beneath the surface, is a safe technology that has a 60 year history in the North America. According to the Ground Water Protection Council, an organization of American state regulators, it has been used more than one million times and has never been found to contaminate drinking water.
The fluids used to hydraulically fracture the rock are 99.5 percent water and sand, with the remaining 0.5 percent being additives that are also typically found in common household products like cleaners and detergents. Generally less than 12 chemicals are used in one operation, not the 750 recently reported. Wells are designed with multiple layers of cement and steel casing to keep fluids separate from the environment. After the fluid is used, it is recycled for use in other wells, treated or injected into deep disposal wells.
There have also been concerns that shale gas will deplete Tunisia’s water supply. The Kennedy School at Harvard University found that water used for shale gas development, on a per-unit-of-energy-produced basis, requires comparable or even less water than other energy sources. In the United States, water usage for all oil and gas activity – including hydraulic fracturing – typically represents less than one percent of total water demand in any given area. In some parts, that number is as low as 0.1 percent. Recycling and using non-potable water sources are options that companies routinely employ when water is scarce.
It is surprising that some unions have rejected shale gas development, rather than seeking factual information on the opportunity it presents. In the United States, trade unions have played an instrumental role in shale gas development. Butch Taylor is the president of Ohio’s Local 396 Plumbers & Pipefitters Union, one of many local unions whose workers have benefited from the industry. Before shale gas development they were facing 30 to 40 percent unemployment but now have “full employment” and “relish” the opportunities the industry provides their workers.
Mohamed Larbi Bouguerra, in letter published November 6 in Leaders, asserts there will be wells drilled every 600 metres, with 3 wells every 2 kilometres. However, with horizontal drilling many wells can be drilled from a single location, extending out in different directions, so impacts are greatly reduced. In fact, a typical shale well can access as much natural gas as would have required ten or more conventional wells. Further, the claims that shale gas caused flaming faucets in Texas, foul-smelling water in Pavillion and contaminated water wells in Pennsylvania have all been investigated and disproven by state regulators.
Shale gas development is occurring safely in the United States and Canada, and the growing consensus in other countries is that shale gas can be developed safely with proper regulations. The European Parliament has rejected a ban, seeking instead regulations adapted for the European context. In France, the Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg has credited innovation for shale development that can be conducted “without destruction.” And workers’ unions in the United States have done so too.
With an estimated technically recoverable resource of 13 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of shale gas, Tunisians should look at all of the facts before deciding the fate of a safe, clean energy source that could provide much needed Tunisian jobs and government revenue – just as it has in the United States.
Reynald Du Berger is a retired geology professor at the Canadian Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.