LONDON — The shale revolution is going global.
From the Australian outback to the Argentine Andes, many of the world’s largest energy companies are on the hunt for new sources of what they call unconventional oil and natural gas.
The multibillion-dollar investments, which often involve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could change the face of the global energy markets.
China and Russia have some of the largest shale oil and gas reserves in the world, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
The development of these resources over the next 20 years, particularly in emerging markets, may reshape how oil and gas are consumed in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
“Shale has an opportunity to become very important to these countries,” said Melissa Stark, global managing director of the new-energy practice at the consulting firm Accenture. “They are brand new markets. They are starting with a clean sheet.”
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In total, global recoverable shale gas resources may reach 7.3 trillion cubic feet, or the equivalent of four times Russia’s proven gas reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration in Washington. Shale oil deposits could total 345 billion barrels worldwide, or more than Saudi Arabia’s current conventional oil resources.
The size of the potential reserves has spurred a burgeoning of industries in countries that traditionally have not had local energy sectors. Domestic energy booms also have allowed some countries, including the United States, to steadily reduce their reliance on high-priced energy imports.
The importance of shale is expected to grow as emerging markets bounce back from the global financial crisis and as accelerating economic growth pushes up demand for energy, including fossil fuels. Growing middle classes in countries like Brazil and India are starting to buy more luxury goods like cars and high-end smartphones. And despite the rise of renewables like wind- and solar-power, oil, gas and coal are still expected to represent the lion’s share of worldwide energy consumption for the foreseeable future. Global demand for gas, for example, is expected to jump more than 50 percent over the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental policy-coordinating and advisory body based in Paris.
Amid this rising consumption, shale is expected to provide more than a third of global supplies over the same period, up from around 15 percent last year.
“The golden age of gas remains in full swing,” Maria van der Hoeven, the Paris-based agency’s executive director, said in a statement recently. “Gas is already a major fuel in power generation, but the next five years will also see it emerging as a significant transportation fuel.”
The rising importance of shale oil and gas comes as the industry in the United States, which began almost 20 years ago and is now the largest producer of unconventional energy, has gone mainstream.