[op-ed snap] The shale gas challenge

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Mains Paper 1: Geography | Distribution of key natural resources across the world (including South Asia & the Indian sub-continent)

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Shale gas, fracking, Directorate General of Hydrocarbons

Mains level: Pros & Cons of shale gas exploration and its role in reducing India’s oil import bill


Context

New hydrocarbon policy approved

  1. The Central government has approved a far-reaching policy that allows private and government players to explore and exploit unconventional hydrocarbons (including shale gas) in contract areas
  2. These areas were primarily allocated for extracting conventional hydrocarbons

Shale gas exploration a difficult task

  1. Shale gas is trapped under low permeable rocks
  2. A mixture of ‘pressurised water, chemicals, and sand’ (shale fluid) is required to break low permeable rocks in order to unlock the shale gas reserves
  3. The process requires around 5 to 9 million litres of water per extraction activity, posing a daunting challenge to India’s freshwater resources

Inadequate provisions to deal with low water availability

  1. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) issued a guideline on environment management during shale gas extraction, stating that “overall volume of fracture fluid is 5 to 10 times that of conventional hydraulic fracturing” and “the (fracturing) activities are likely to deplete water sources and cause pollution due to the disposal of flowback (produced) water”
  2. The guideline falters and states that these challenges will be dealt while granting environmental clearances as per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process
  3. The EIA process, however, does not differentiate between conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons
  4. Sensing this regulatory gap, the DGH in its guideline proposes five new reference points (term of references) relating to water issues in the fracking process that a project proponent must explain while applying for the environmental clearance
  5. However, these five reference points are not succinct to resolve the water-specific issues posed by the fracking activities

Why regulating water usage is important for India?

  1. The importance of clarity in water usage and the place of shale gas extraction in India is linked directly with water requirements of priority sectors like agriculture
  2. A recent study from Duke University observes that from 2011 through 2016, the water use per well in the U.S. increased up to 770% resulting in some shale wells consuming up to 42 million litres of water per well
  3. The study further conveys that over a period of time, the usage of water dramatically increases for extracting the same amount of shale gas from a well

A threat of ground & surface water contamination 

  1. Shale rocks are usually adjacent to rocks containing useable/ drinking water known as ‘aquifers’
  2. While fracking, the shale fluid could possibly penetrate aquifers leading to methane poisoning of groundwater used for drinking and irrigational purposes
  3. When shale fluid is injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock, 5-50% (depending on the local geology) of the fluid returns to the surface, known as ‘flowback water’ and the flow continues as oil and gas is pumped from the well
  4. The flowback water is usually methane-contaminated, and therefore it poses different recycling and leakage issues than usual wastewater

Guidelines ineffective on various fronts

  1. The DGH guideline states that a project proponent must “design and construct wells with proper barriers to isolate and protect groundwater”, but misses out on broadly describing the nature or properties of a barrier that can be considered ‘proper’ to isolate and protect the groundwater
  2. The DGH guideline touches upon the exclusive nature of the flowback water but neither proposes any substantive treatment method nor recognises the increase in flowback water during repeated extraction of shale gas from a well over a period of time

Way Forward

  1. Indian households and irrigation thrive on groundwater
  2. Implementation of the fracking processes without a consultative thought through process, especially on ‘water usage policy’, may result in larger issues including water stress, contamination of groundwater, and related health hazards
Oil and Gas Sector – HELP, Open Acreage Policy, etc.
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