Shale gas extraction is fraught with problems

By Killugudi Jayaraman, IANS
Sunday, November 21, 2010

BANGALORE - “We are trying to usher in a shale gas era”, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora exulted after signing an agreement with the United States for shale gas exploration during President Barack Obama’s visit early this month. But if the current controversy in the US is any indication, recovery of shale gas from the bowels of the earth is likely to create major environmental and health problems and India should be prepared to handle them, experts say.

A report released in July this year by Washington-based World Watch Institute (WWI) said “a robust regulatory oversight is an important ingredient to assure environmental and public protection” if any country wants to exploit shale gas. The WWI scientists examined the environmental and other risks associated with shale gas development that has kicked up a controversy in the US following complaints of chemical pollution of ground water.

Shale gas is natural gas or methane trapped in hard rocks called “shale” thousands of metres below earth surface. Extraction of this gas involves horizontal drilling and use of a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” which blasts water mixed with chemicals into a well to break the rock and release the gas.

This technology has received a good deal of attention for the potential negative impacts on the environment such as groundwater contamination and air pollution, says the report. Even earthquakes have been blamed on gas extraction activities.

Of particular concern, according to the report, is that the chemicals used in the fracking process could seep into the surrounding groundwater and cause serious health problems in nearby communities. Besides possible long-term damage to aquifers from fracturing chemicals, huge volumes of waste water and no safe way to dispose of the same and loss of green space are other concerns, said the report.

In the US there have been reports of groundwater contaminated with methane or toxic chemicals in both Pennsylvania and Colorado, the WWI said.

According to a report in the journal Scientific American, some homeowners in central Pennsylvania found methane levels in their water so high that they could light it with a match. The report said that one family is suing the operator after tests showed that its well water had high levels of manganese (a potential neurotoxin) and “acrylonitrile” that can affect the central nervous system.

India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) had in April 2010 awarded a Rs.1.2- billion contract to the US firm Schlumberger Ltd. to drill for shale gas. According to an ONGC press release, the first shale gas well was spudded in Ichapur village near Durgapur in the Burdwan district on Sep 21.

The ONGC plans to drill three more shale gas wells in the Damodar basin in West Bengal and Bihar. Now that an agreement for collaboration has been signed with the US, the ONGC expects to accelerate exploration of shale gas.

ONGC general manager and public information officer Arvind Kumar Shah however did not reply to questions about how the agency plans to address the environmental issues likely to arise in India in the light of the experiences of operators in the US - the only country where shale gas is at present produced commercially.

Besides environmental problems, land ownership can raise concerns if shale gas has to be extracted from below farmers’ land. Steel projects of Arcelor Mittal and Posco, worth several billion dollars, in Orissa and Jharkhand have been stalled by protests by villagers and shale gas drilling may face a similar fate, says an industry source.

The recent Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster has stiffened the resolve of US environmental groups to challenge industry guarantees about the safety of the “fracking” technology, the report said.

The New York Senate has voted for a moratorium on shale gas drilling throughout the state, according to the WWI report. The state of Colorado revised its oil and gas rules in April 2009 to strengthen protections for the local environment.

(K.S. Jayaraman can be contacted at

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