About a couple of weeks ago, Egyptian state newspaper AlAhram announced new investments by Shell in exploration and production operations in its concession areas in the Egyptian Western Desert, carried out by Badr El Din Petroleum Company (BAPETCo) – its joint venture with EGPC responsible for its operations there. The news was also published in other outlets. Most disturbing about these reports is the information that Shell has successfully used hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in one of its wells and plans to apply the technique in the other viable wells it is currently exploring in the area. Fracking is hailed as a “new technology” successfully applied for the first time in Egypt and North Africa; this information is openly (and proudly) confirmed by Bapetco/ Shell.
While this controversial method extraction method is being hailed by Egyptian state media as a positive advancement in Egypt’s natural gas extraction operations, several countries – including France, Bulgaria, and South Africa – as well as the State of New York in the USA, have banned the practice due to its impacts on environment and the health hazards these pose, and due to strong indicators that counter the oil industry assurances of the safety of the process.
In a addition to the health impacts of higher levels of toxins and carcinogenic air pollutants – such as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) ozone, and benzene – around fracking well areas, the associated methane and GHG emissions should definitely be of particular concern to Egypt given its high vulnerability to the effects of climate change, most vulnerable sectors being coastal zones, water resources, and agriculture.
Natural gas from fracking could be ‘dirtier’ than coal, Cornell professors find
Fracking is also a water-intensive process, but beyond the water consumption aspect, the toxicity of the fracking slurry mixture pumped into the ground and resulting waste raises serious questions about its safety. This poisonous mixture poses a number of contamination risks to groundwater and the surrounding environment; be it through surface spills, common structural failures of the wells, or migration of the unrecovered slurry toward drinking water supplies – which, according to a recent study occurs far more quickly than experts have previously predicted: in the terms of “just a few years”.
There is no information on where Shell sources the water it uses for its operations in the Western Desert. With Egypt’s increasing water poverty, the application of a process that uses water extensively is simply unreasonable and unjustifiable. Moreover, communities in Siwa and Farafra Oases have since times immemorial relied on groundwater in the West Desert for agriculture. None of the Egyptian press releases and news articles cite any studies having been conducted on the impacts of fracking operations in the area, or the intention to monitor and assess the impacts on Egypt’s strategic groundwater reservoir and the communities that rely on them for their livelihood and sustenance.
The application of fracking in Egypt highlights the flaws and failures of the energy sector policy and decision-making process, which have prevented Egypt from following a sustainable development pathway: despite targets being set by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy for a 20% share of renewable resources in electricity generation by 2020, these targets have not translated into a concerted coordinated national strategy to guide the policy making process. Instead, energy subsidy incentivizes fossil fuel, and the Oil Industry – backed by the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, and with complete lack of public consultation and oversight – pushes forward to increase production of resources that should be sustainably and transparently managed.
In the shorter term, this increase of production of natural gas is occurring with complete disregard to its environmental impacts. The fact that Shell is operating these wells and applying fracking should raise many red flags, given its track record in pollution and rights violations: methane migration reaching a drinking well and a diesel spill wiping out a pristine water supply in Pennsylvania, USA; lobbying, misrepresenting facts about fracking and buying up water rights in the New Mexico/ Colorado area, USA; running misleading adverts in the South African press – South Africa being now one of the countries that ban fracking – to cover up the impacts of fracking from the public.
However, despite Shell’s dodgy past in applying the technique, and the gravity of the potential impacts, fracking has been applied without prior public consultation and scientific assessment of its impacts and disclosure thereof. A meeting with the EEAA Head of the Central Environmental Impact Assessment Department revealed that there are no regulations for fracking. So, in addition to the impacts not having been adequately studied and assessed, dangerous aspects of the process such as the treatment and disposal of the toxic slurry remain unregulated. The lack of any consultation with the Western Desert communities that stand to bear the burden of the direct impacts of the fracking operations is yet another manifestation of policies that have long been driven by corporate interest and business profitability at the expense of communities’ rights to their environment and the sustainability of our resources.
EIPR issued a press statement on why fracking should be banned in Egypt. This technical brief on the dangers of fracking and what it means for Egypt outlines demands from the Egyptian government and oil companies.