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.