To frack or not to frack…

By Malini Hariharan

…is a debate that has starting moving out of the US. A desire for energy independence has seen countries like Poland to embrace shale gas with the government welcoming US companies to quickly develop the country’s reserves, estimated at 5.3 trillion cubic metres.

This would be enough to meet Poland’s annual gas consumption of 14 billion cubic metres for decades to come and put an end to its need to import 70% of its required gas from Russia, said the Polish economy ministry.

Let’s not be afraid, let’s just do our own thing,” said the country’s foreign minister referring to the environmental issues related to shale gas.

“We just have to keep explaining to environmentalists and local people what it’s about. From what I know, the technology keeps improving,” he added.

Global majors have lined up to accept the government’s open invitation. Total has signed up with ExxonMobil to acquire an interest in the exploration of shale gas while Chevron will be working on its own. And the Polish refining, chemicals and petrochemicals group PKN Orlen has plans to launch its own oil and gas extraction and energy production units in 2012.

But while Poland is moving aggressively France is likely to become the first country to ban development of shale gas.

The country’s lower house of Parliament approved a bill earlier this month to ban drilling due to environmental concerns and cancelled exploration rights given to companies. The Senate will consider the bill in June.

A principal area of concern in France and also in the US is the fracking or fracturing process which involves blasting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals to break shale rocks to release the gas trapped in them.

Environmentalists claim that the chemicals used in fracking cause contamination of ground water. They recently received a big boost in their campaign against shale gas after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating water supplies in Bradford County, a busy drilling area in the Marcellus shale gas formation.

The agency concluded that contamination was caused by improper well casing and cementing, allowing seepage from non-shale shallow gas formations.

A second area of concern is methane leaks from drilling sites also contaminating drinking water.

Researchers at Duke University concluded after a recent study that methane contamination has taken place at sites in Pennsylvania and New York.

Methane was found in 85 percent of the samples, and at sites within a kilometer (0.6 mile) of active hydraulic-fracturing operations, levels were 17 times higher than in wells far from such operations, said the study.

Some residents have sounded an alarm about running faucets that ignite if a flame is placed nearby. These and other environmental issues have been superbly captured in this very hip rap song (special thanks to the blog’s colleague Nel for discovering this).

Shale gas has given the US petrochemical industry a new life but with the green lobby getting stronger the industry may soon have to dance to a new tune. 

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