China and fracking: A recipe for disaster?
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China and fracking: A recipe for disaster?

About nine months ago I posted about China’s ill-advised move into hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process of removing shale gas by pumping vast amounts of chemicals and water into shale rock in order to extract gas deposits beneath. The process has been shown to contaminate groundwater and use 10 times the amount of water as conventional oil and gas extraction.

These concerns about “fracking”, as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known, in the United States and Europe are only compounded in China, a country with considerable problems concerning potable water in general, and vast regions where water is in short supply.

But as China continues to industrialize at breakneck pace and its appetite for fossil fuels grows accordingly. Despite the obvious risks, fracking is probably even more appealing for China than it is for other countries – except the US, which is fracking-mad.

But there is another concern with fracking connected to seismic activity, yet again something that China should be extra careful about. Dr. Joe Allen, geology professor at Concord University in the United States, is quoted in an article by West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

There’s been a series of earthquakes in the mid-continent of the US in Youngstown, Ohio. There’s some in Oklahoma and there’s been some recent studies that show a correlation between some of those there in the order magnitude of four to five earthquakes but they are directly related to hydraulic fracturing. So they were basically man induced earthquakes.

The problem is also that fault lines that have been weakened by fracking can be more susceptible earthquakes, or perhaps make any naturally occurring seismic activity more extreme.

Hydraulic fracturing in the Sichuan Basin, the largest continental collision in the world, sounds like tempting fate. Studies by academics in China, including Sichuan’s own Earthquake Administration Bureaux, found large amounts of earthquakes in test wells, which increased significantly when water was injected into them. Unfortunately, Sichuan contains some 40% of China’s shale gas reserves.

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Earthquake damage in 2008, Hanwang, Sichuan. Pic: Remko Tanis (Flickr CC)

Regarding risks in Sechuan, Shell’s Beijing spokesman Shi Jiangtao had this to say in an email to Bloomberg news.

We do detailed structural analysis as routine part of our pre-drill evaluation. This means that we evaluate the geology by using seismic, surface geology, nearby well data, etc.

But according to Briana Mordick, a staff scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, calculating seismic risk is complicated and Sichuan is an area of particular concern.

Read more about that in Bloomberg.

Others see nuclear as a better option for China than fracking, but nuclear power has a much more controversial history than shale gas, which only began grabbing headlines a couple of years ago. Either way, with China’s recent trend towards grass roots environmental protests, the residents who live near Sichuan shale gas fields may have something to say about the future of fracking in their backyard.