Fracking the world: Despite climate risks, fracking is going global

Yet governments around the world, the same ones which ratified the Paris Agreement, are supporting oil and gas companies as they seek to greatly widen fracking's global footprint.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The U.S. exported a record 3.6 million barrels per day of oil in February. This oil is the result of the American fracking boom – and as a report from Oil Change International recently noted – its continued growth is undermining global efforts to limit climate change. The Energy Information Administration predicts U.S. oil production will increase again in 2019 to record levels, largely driven by fracking in the Permian shale in Texas and New Mexico.

And the U.S. is not alone in trying to maximize oil and gas production. Despite the financial failures of the U.S. fracking industry, international efforts to duplicate the American fracking story are ramping up across the globe.

The CEO of Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco recently dismissed the idea that global demand for oil will decrease anytime soon and urged the oil industry to “push back on exaggerated theories like peak oil demand.”

But Saudi Aramco also is gearing up for a shopping spree of natural gas assets, including big investments in the U.S., and increasing gas production via fracking in its own shale fields. Aramco is deeply invested in keeping the world hungry for more oil and gas.

Khalid al Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, told the Financial Times, “Going forward the world is going to be Saudi Aramco’s playground.” But not if other countries frack there first.

China expanding fracking efforts, testing new technology

As a major importer of oil and natural gas, it is no surprise that China is trying to exploit its own shale formations, which are rich with oil and gas. China is estimated to have the largest shale gas reserves of any country. However, China’s shale formations present different challenges than those in the U.S., including gas deposits at significantly greater depths.

China’s national oil and gas companies are making gains in fracking and lowering costs to produce gas but are still only producing a small fraction of the gas of U.S. frackers.

In addition to technical challenges, China also faces local opposition in regions where fracking is occurring. One county in China’s Sichuan province recently suspended fracking efforts after an earthquake killed two people. The event resulted in massive public protests against fracking, which protesters blame for the earthquakes.

Mountain range in China's Sichuan province
Yading, Daocheng, Garze, Sichuan Province, China Credit: hans-johnson, CC BY-ND 2.0

Fracking – and specifically the re-injection of fracking wastewater into deep rock formations – is known to increase seismic activity in America. Fracking has also been blamed for earthquakes in the United Kingdom and Canada.

The Chinese government insists that the earthquakes are unrelated to fracking activity, and points out the Sichuan region is known for earthquakes, including a devastating 2008 quake that killed an estimated nearly 90,000 people.

To complicate matters, China has plans to test a brand-new fracking technology to access gas deposits at extreme depths, where the pressures required are too great for current hydraulic fracturing techniques. This approach, never before tried outside a lab, involves detonating a device deep underground to fracture the impermeable shale rock and release gas deposits.

The first tests are expected by March or April of this year. While this technology comes with clear safety and environmental risks, especially within the earthquake-prone Sichuan province, the industry is mostly focused on the upside for gas production.

Chen Jun, a professor at Southwest Petroleum University in Chengdu, noted, “A technological breakthrough could trigger another shale gas revolution.”

Considering the existing shale oil and gas revolution’s impacts on the climate, the last thing the world needs is another one, but many big industry players are working toward just that.

Major oil companies get in the fracking game

Besides Saudi Aramco, several other oil majors are now moving into fracking in a big way, with the constant goal of boosting oil and gas production.

BP abandoned its early attempts to produce oil and gas in the U.S. via fracking when it was forced to sell U.S. assets to pay for legal bills resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. However, in 2018 BP spent $10.5 billion to buy the shale assets of BHP Billiton.

The oil giant also has a $12 billion investment in Oman, where fracking techniques and expertise learned in Texas – along with a favorable deal with the government of Oman – appear to be helping BP succeed.

BP announced profits of $12.7 billion for 2018. While it and other oil companies have so far failed to consistently profit off fracking for oil and gas in the U.S. and elsewhere, these large investments by BP and companies like ExxonMobil show that the biggest oil companies in the world are now betting big on fracking.

ExxonMobil, the biggest leaseholder in the Permian Basin, is pouring its hopes on fracking there to turn around recent financial woes. This move is part of Exxon’s plan to increase its oil and gas production by 25 percent by 2025.

The major players in oil and gas production are moving ahead with plans to increase production, with fracking playing a vital part.

Fracking the world and the climate

Despite recent help from the Trump administration, efforts to frack the extensive Vaca Muerta shale basin in Argentina have been slow to take off since the oil and gas field’s discovery a decade ago, but Vista Oil & Gas just announced plans to begin fracking there.

While fracking has not yet proven to be a money maker in Argentina, Miguel Galuccio, CEO of Vista, explained why he thought the Vaca Muerta had a future in global oil and gas production.

The Permian is finite,” Galuccio told Bloomberg. “When drillers face deteriorating acreage, where will they turn for growth? I know they’re looking at Vaca Muerta.”

And around the world.

Last year a moratorium on fracking was lifted for Australia’s Northern Territory and in January plans were announced to begin fracking for gas.

After the 2018 election in Mexico, the new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced his apparent intention to ban fracking there. However, more recent reports indicate this would not be a true ban. Government officials have voiced support for fracking in Mexico, saying that it will have “restrictions.” After all, the country has large estimates of shale oil and gas, and production is booming just across the U.S. border in Texas and New Mexico.

Fracking efforts in the U.K. have resulted in breached environmental permits, suspected earthquakes, and widespread opposition. 

Continuing to expand oil and gas production, which fracking plays a huge part in, for energy, petrochemical, and plastic production is incompatible with international goals to keep global warming well under 3.6°F (2°C) above pre-industrial levels.

Yet governments around the world, the same ones which ratified the Paris Agreement, are supporting oil and gas companies as they seek to greatly widen fracking’s global footprint.


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