Pakistan is getting ready to form a policy for tapping into the massive shale oil and gas reserves found after a recently concluded study in partnership with USAID.
It found that the lower and middle Indus basin, which covers Sindh, southern Punjab, and East Balochistan, is home to 10,159 trillion cubic feet shale gas and 2.3 trillion barrels of shale oil. Out of these reserves, 95 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and 14 billion barrels of shale oil are recoverable.
Considering the fact that Pakistan has 20 trillion cubic feet of conventional gas (enough for 15 years) and 385 million barrels of oil, the potential of shale oil and gas is significant, even after you take into account the high costs associated with extracting them.
Great news? Not quite.
We’re very concerned with the complete lack of coverage on the potential negative impact of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), which is the method used to extract oil and gas from shale rock. We’d like to pose the question: is fracking and shale oil and gas the solution to Pakistan’s energy woes?
What is Fracking?
Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth (often more than 2km) and injecting a chemically treated water mixture at high pressures to fracture the rock and release gas and oil from shale rock.
The fracking fluid is made up to water, sand, and chemicals and injecting it at high pressure causes the rock surrounding the pipes to crack. The sand in the fluid keeps the cracks open and after the fluid is pumped out, gas and oil can escape to the well, where they are collected.
Usually, the fracking fluid is pumped deep into the ground and the well is sealed after all oil and gas have been recovered.
If you want a more detailed explanation, check out this excellent video by Kurzsegast.
The Negative Impact of Fracking
Despite being used across the world, fracking is a controversial technology. Some countries have outright banned fracking due to its negative effects.
It uses a lot of water: On a single well, as little as 3 million and as much as 8 million gallons of fresh water can be used. With thousands of wells dug for fracking, the water use quickly ramps up to billions of gallons and is quite simply, unsustainable for a country like Pakistan which needs this water for agriculture use.
It’s not only agriculture though. Pakistan is classified as a water-stressed country and some researchers have called water scarcity a bigger issue than terrorism. The country faces a drought situation in the near future and diverting billions of gallons of water for fracking while ignoring more sustainable energy solutions spells a recipe for disaster.
It can cause earthquakes: Wastewater disposal after fracking and the fracking process itself have been linked to increased seismic activity even in areas which aren’t prone to earthquakes.
After fracking started in the US state of Oklahoma, the average number of earthquakes with an intensity of 3.0 or higher went from 2 per year to 183 per year – which increased the risk for a larger earthquake in the future as well.
Two-thirds of Pakistan lies of a fault line, according to Zahid Raffaee, Director Seismic network of the Met Department of Pakistan. Devastating earthquakes are a very real threat and anything that increases the risk needs to be studied carefully. Is Pakistan doing any study on how fracking can increase the risk of earthquakes before it gives companies the license to go ahead?
Effect on Environment: The fracking fluid injected into the ground is a toxic cocktail. Companies in the US and other regions have often used chemicals in fracking that cause cancer and the mixture is so toxic that it can wipe out vegetation and make the area uninhabitable for wildlife. It is so toxic that it can’t even be made safer by water treatment plants.
That’s not even the worst part. Fracking water can contaminate underground water reservoirs which are used for drinking water by rural communities. In one case which highlighted the dangers of contamination, a US resident living near a fracking site was able to set their water on fire.
18% to 80% of the water injected into wells comes back up and properly disposing of this water – which is laced with harmful chemicals and is even radioactive in many cases – is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, companies worldwide have proven they are not up to this challenge and find the cheapest ways to dispose of it at the expense of our rivers, streams, and environment.
Is Shale Oil and Gas the Solution to Pakistan’s Energy Problems?
We understand that Pakistan needs all the help it can get to solve its energy problems but we sincerely question whether fracking is the solution.
It has the potential to make our water problems even worse. Add to that Pakistan’s track record of lax safety regulations on companies and the lack of regard shown by drilling companies worldwide for “safe” fracking and it becomes a potential disaster in the making.