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Foreign Fracking
Water Scarcity Stymies Shale Ambitions Abroad

Hydraulic fracturing—fracking—can unlock huge reserves of oil and gas, but it requires large amounts of water to pull off, and 38 percent of the world’s shale gas deposits lie in water-scarce regions. That’s according to a new report from the World Resources Institute, which also noted that two-fifths of the world’s biggest shale reserves are located in water stressed regions. The FT reports:

The process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to extract shale gas can require 7m-23m litres of water, according to the study. The total varies from well to well. […] Of the 20 countries with the largest shale gas resources, eight have deposits in areas that are arid or face high to extremely high water stress, including China, Algeria, Mexico and South Africa.

Similarly, eight of the 20 countries with the largest reserves of tight oil, including shale oil, have them in regions that are arid or with high water-stress, including China, Mexico and Pakistan.

Energy reasons aside, water scarcity is a big problem in many parts of the world, but the key role water plays in breaking up shale rock to free hydrocarbons makes that scarcity an especially thorny problem for countries looking to emulate the U.S. fracking revolution. This is particularly true for China, where a recent survey revealed 28,000 rivers have disappeared over the past 20 years. The Asian giant boasts the world’s largest shale gas reserves, but many of these deposits are found in remote, arid regions. As a result, the country is struggling to catch up to America’s massive lead, and last month halved its 2020 shale targets.

The shale boom has quickly reversed America’s energy fortunes, but it’s taken a laundry list of favorable factors—from water scarcity to pipeline networks to favorable geology—to get going. No other country has been able to replicate that confluence of technical know-how and natural providence that has lifted America’s energy fortunes, and this new report helps explain why.

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  • Pete

    God has blessed America from the start.

  • CaliforniaStark

    The technology presently exists to frack without water. Wells are now being fracked with propane gel, and advances are being made in developing cryogenic fracking with liquid nitrogen, and fracking with CO2. Major corporations such as GE and Halliburton are now involved with developing waterless fracking.

    The problem with fracking in China more involves the lack of protection of intellectual property rights than new fracking technology. Unfortunately, China’s poor reputation in this regard has proceeded them. You reap what you sow.

    • Kevin

      Yes. I was going to suggest that ingenuity and legal structure probably matter more. These can help overcome other limitations by encouraging the hunt for substitutes. But with them even a natural abundance will be squandered.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      It isn’t just the proprietary technical knowledge that is holding places like China back, it is also the real property rights. Nearly all of the fracked wells are on private land in the US. In most countries property owners don’t have the mineral rights to their own land. This is a major roadblock to development, as dealing with governments is an exercise in corruption, red tape, and nationalization (theft of your property and profits). So at the moment, and for as long as there’s places to develop in the US, drillers are going to stay in the US where there is much less risk, and much higher long term profits.
      This blog frequently touts the Mexican reform of their nationalized oil industry PEMEX, and I have repeatedly commented that the baby steps they are taking are much too small to encourage the kind of development this blog thinks it will. PEMEX’s problems are those of a monopoly and as long as it remains a monopoly it will continue to decay. Monopolies including the Government Monopoly all suffer from the same disease, they lack the “Feedback of Competition”. It is the “Feedback of Competition” that forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, in free markets. Any organization that isn’t challenged by competitors, doesn’t get the information needed to know what changes are needed, and to force those changes to occur in the face of the human resistance to all change.

  • Boritz

    Texas has historically suffered from a similar problem. A rancher in dire need of water for his cattle herds would sink another well only to find that it too would only produce oil…

  • Fat_Man

    I have frequently tried to remind you that FT articles are paywalled. However, if you google the title of the article, it will be the first entry. You may then read the article by answering a couple of inane questions.

    Please, give the full title of any FT article you are linking.

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