Is fracking fantastic or just flipping foolish?

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Almost everyone says fracking for oil and gas in shale is a game changer and its resultant cheap, abundant energy will fundamentally alter the world economy, dependent as the world is on petroleum in its various forms. But not all the pundits agree.

The Greens claim the shale gas will run out sooner than expected and cite those fracked wells that have disappointed. Some of their other objections have little evidence to back them, but there is no doubt that tough regulations are necessary.

But putting aside the environmentalists’ worries, there are wider implications for countries outside the US. Consider Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or any of the oil-producing Middle East states whose economies are dependent on crude oil.

One Saudi prince was so worried that he gave an interview to a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, in which he said: “The new shale oil discoveries are a threat to any oil-producing nation in the world. Definitely it is a worry and concern… It is a matter of survival.”

A matter of survival? Well, yes. Saudi Arabia gets more than 90 percent of its state revenue from oil and runs an extensive welfare system to keep its citizens happy; almost half of whom are unemployed. The rest work for the civil service – some say this is another form of welfare.

With this kind of imbalance in Saudi finances, it is no wonder they are scared of the outpouring of cheap gas in the US, not to mention the increasing volume of crude oil, to such an extent that it is possible that the US will be self sufficient by 2020.

Saudi welfare payments may be essential, but the big question is: what happens when the oil stops gushing or its price drops? Will there be civil unrest? Judging from Saudi Arabia’s recent draconian anti-dissident law, it is seen as a real possibility.

If the Saudis are nervous, how much worse it must be for the Kuwaitis. That small kingdom is even more generous to its citizens. They get cheap land, no-interest housing loans and free schooling and medicine. (The 4 million “guest workers” in the country get no such benefits).

So much for just two Arab oil states. The others are in various stages of understanding the implications of the shale gas revolution. If their main customers are the EU, they may take comfort from France’s banning of fracking. China’s massive appetite for oil could be a saviour, but then China has enormous shale beds.

What Arab oil states need to worry about is the time when everyone, not just the US, starts fracking shale for oil and gas. When that happens the traditional oil producing countries could be in a serious bind.

On the other hand, some commentators doubt the enthusiastic predictions for shale oil and gas. In the US, fracked oil and gas is seen as a short-term thing. Many fracked wells are dry, while some dribble gas, oil, or both. But the number of failed wells is a tiny percentage of the total.

In this game of cards, the anti-fracking lobby (who are not all environmentalists) finally play the Iraq card: once Iraq settles down and produces oil at its maximum rate, prices will tumble and peak oil will be put off for decades. No need to frack, then.

Meanwhile, the doubters tend to be brushed aside by the figures for shale gas and oil reserves. US reserves could last 110 years at 2009 rates of consumption. Add in the estimated reserves for the rest of the world, and the amounts of oil and gas recoverable from shale deposits are gigantic. Of course, there is no guarantee that all of this potential will be realised.

Poland’s attempts to frack its shale beds have not been successful, and Bulgaria has banned fracking. But Europe is uneasy about its reliance on Russian gas and this strengthens the pro-fracking lobby, so the future of fracking may come down to which is the stronger – nervousness about Russia or the strength of Europe’s Green lobby.

In many ways, the US was uniquely able to frack for gas and oil. For one thing, there already was a national network of gas pipelines and terminals. For another, the US has deep entrepreneurial traditions. Most other countries have a business environment that isn’t nearly so friendly.

Then there is the geology. The Karoo Basin shale for example could be tricky to frack because of “igneous intrusions”, that is, hard rock above and between the shale.

In short, despite the loud protests of the local Green lobby, and certainly not because of them, there might not be recoverable gas (or oil) under the Karoo after all.

* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.


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