Water shortage could hit China’s fracking plans

Race to exploit shale gas resources could be hit by low levels of freshwater supplies, critical for drilling

(Pic: Eschipul/Flickr)

(Pic: Eschipul/Flickr)

By Ed King

China’s plans to exploit its vast shale gas resources could be limited by acute levels of water stress, say researchers.

The country has the highest shale resources in the world, with estimates of its recoverable shale gas  ranging between 30-1,115 trillion cubic metres.

But in a new study published today, the World Resources Institute (WRI) warns limited availability of freshwater near potential drilling sites is likely to impact China’s ability to exploit these gas supplies.

“Companies operating in arid areas and in areas of high or extremely high baseline water stress (60% of China’s shale play area) will have to compete with other users for what is already a very scarce resource,” says the report.

“High levels of competition among agricultural, domestic, and industrial water users could represent higher costs, reputational risks and increased regulatory uncertainty for operators trying to access water for hydraulic fracturing and drilling operations.”

Fracking works by propelling millions of tonnes of water mixed with chemicals and sand into wells at high pressures, cracking open fissures in the rock and releasing gas.

While shale wells in the US are often at shallow depths of 5-9,000ft, experts say China’s gas reserves are likely to be deeper, consuming more resources and requiring more powerful drilling rigs.

But as the map below illustrates, many of China’s major shale gas plays are situated in regions already under severe water stress.

Parts of the country are experiencing the worst drought in 63 years, according to state news agency Xinhua, hitting two million hectares of crops.


China hopes to replicate America’s shale gas boom, which has seen energy prices tumble and led to calls in Congress for the country to start exporting excess supplies.

In 2012 its key planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, made drilling for shale gas a priority.

Boosting indigenous gas supplies is seen as a way to slow coal burning, which releases high levels of climate warming gases and harmful pollutants, choking China’s big cities and making the country the world’s largest carbon emitter.

Globally, shale gas adds 47% to worldwide stocks, while underground stores of tight oil add a further 11%.

According to the WRI, about 40% of shale gas resources in the 20 countries with the largest shale gas resources are located in arid areas.

The land above those shale plays supports 386 million people, say the study’s authors, with around 40% relying heavily on irrigated agriculture to survive.


Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Libya and the USA all have shale gas drilling zones in water stressed areas.

“Water risk is one of the most important, but underappreciated challenges when it comes to shale gas development,” said Andrew Steer, WRI President in a statement.

“This analysis should serve as a wake-up call for countries seeking to develop shale gas. Energy development and responsible water management must go hand in hand.”

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