An Issue of Fracking in China
How it works
Fracking is a current technique many oil and gas companies around the world are using to reach new levels of oil, gas, and geothermal energy not able to be reached until now. “Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well,” (Skuman, 2018).
The term fracking comes from the idea of fracturing rock by the high-pressured mixture. This drilling technique has enabled oil and gas producers to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock, thus increasing oil and gas production inside the U.S. “Media pundits have claimed that this form of oil and gas extraction is a technological breakthrough, which has enabled the U.S. to become the world’s largest oil and gas producer, and will enable the U.S. to become energy independent by the year 2020,” (Manfreda, 2018).
The history of fracking can be traced back to 1862. Col. Edward A.L. Roberts saw what could be accomplished when firing explosive artillery into a narrow canal that obstructed the battlefield. This was described as superincumbent fluid tamping. “On April 26th, 1865, Edward Roberts received his first patent, for an ‘Improvement in exploding torpedoes in artesian wells’. This invention increased oil production by 1200 percent from certain wells within a week of being implemented,” (Manfreda, 2018). Modern day commercial fracking did not start until it was created in 1981 by George Mitchell. In 1997, one of Mitchell’s shale gas wells established that fracking could prove financially viable over the long term. New horizontal drilling techniques made shale gas wells even more productive, and by 2012, shale gas accounted for about 35 percent of the country’s natural gas production.
The process of fracking can take a few months. First, a “wellbore,” or hole, needs to be drilled to the layer of gas-rich shale. This shale layer can sit more than 5,000 feet underground and drilling can take as long as a month. The well is lined with a steel casing to prevent the contamination of nearby groundwater. Once the drill reaches down to the shale layer, it slowly turns and begins drilling horizontally, for a mile or more along the rock. Then, “a perforating gun loaded with explosive charges is lowered to the bottom of the well and punctures tiny holes in the horizontal section of the casing that’s deep down in the shale layer,” (Skuman, 2018). Next, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is pumped into the well at extremely high pressures and goes through the tiny holes in the casing. The fluids crack open the shale rock, the sand holds those cracks open, and the chemicals help the natural gas seep out. Afterward, the water and chemicals flow back out of the well and are taken for disposal or treatment.
The practice of fracking has a long history in the United States, but it is growing steadily in other countries, such as China. China will double its shale gas production to 17 billion cubic meters a year by 2020, said Wood Mac analysts recently. The latest estimate from the Energy Information Administration for 2015 shows that China has recoverable shale gas reserves of 1,115 trillion cubic feet. This quickly positions the country as the largest reservoir of shale gas. The Chinese government is also helping the fracking industry. “In October of 2018, the government cut the resource tax on shale gas by 30 percent to stimulate shale gas production as demand continues to expand at a substantial pace,” (Aczel, & Makuch, 2018). China will also introduce 700 new wells by 2020 in three large locations, two of them operated by PetroChina and one by Sinopec. The energy consultancy estimates the combined investment in the new production capacity at US$5.5 billion.
So, why did China start fracking? For the past few decades, China has relied strictly on coal. “Constituting 70 percent of China’s energy supply, coal has allowed the country to become the world’s second-largest economy in just a few decades,” (DiChristopher, 2018). However, burning coal has also caused irreparable damage to the environment and the health of China’s citizens. The intense pollution has forced city officials to shut down roads because drivers are blinded by soot and smog. China’s Civil Aviation Administration ordered pilots to learn to land planes in low-visibility conditions to avoid flight delays and cancellations. “In 2010, scientists reported in the medical journal, The Lancet, that the country’s 3,000 coal-fired power plants killed 1.2 million Chinese people. And earlier this year, scientists found that up to 24 percent of sulfate air pollutants, which contribute to smog and acid rain in the western United States, originated from Chinese factories manufacturing for export,” (Hong Yang, 2015). With the help of fracking, China is attempting to make their country less reliant on coal, aiming to reduce environmental crises. However, the question still remains: how much safer is fracking than burning coal? Although natural gas is much cleaner than coal, is the process of fracking any better for the environment than burning coal?
Public concern about Chinese government-backed fracking developments has been growing. This concern was voiced through recent and successful protests in China that aimed to stop the construction of a chemical plant in Ningbo. “The October 2012 protests followed other victories to stop the construction of petrochemical plants in Xiamen and Dalian. In Dalian, 10,000 protesters took to the streets to express their worries about the new plants,” (Yang, 2012). Driven by a growing middle class, increased internet and social media access, and more public involvement, China is experiencing significant changes. To maintain stability within the Chinese fracking industry, the government and local authorities will likely have to accommodate to public concerns more. If the estimates prove to be correct and gas prices remain high, China’s shale gas could indeed be the energy boom that it has been seeking.
China’s national oil companies still have plenty of ground to cover before they even approximate the level of success America’s shale pioneers have achieved. Chinese energy companies must perfect advanced drilling methods tailored for their country. “The country’s shale basins are mostly located in remote, mountainous regions that lack a network of pipelines and other infrastructure. All of that makes prepping well sites and shipping gas a costly endeavor,” (McMahon & Yung, 2011). The Chinese shale formations themselves tend to be relatively deep. That means Chinese firms typically must drill deeper than U.S. frackers, which raises costs and makes it tougher to maintain the wells during drilling. “Although China is on schedule to meet its ambitious growth targets, commentators have suggested shale gas may prove less of a blessing and more of a ‘resource curse’,” (Totty, 2013). The nation also lacks several things that drove the U.S. shale boom: open markets that promote competition, a network of small frackers that push innovation, and locally available expertise. “As for whether a partnership with U.S. companies could turbocharge development, Yang says that sort of cooperation is certainly possible, but it’s no cure-all because China’s shale landscape is so different from America’s,” (Totty, 2013). Fracking could be creating an environmental disaster and nationwide instability in China.
In the race of fracking, the United States is currently beating China. China’s natural gas production has risen to 9 billion cubic meters, which is a fraction of the production in America. Last year, American drillers produced 474.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas from shale rock. Even though the outputs of the two countries are not even close to proportionate, China is investing heavily in fracking. So far, China has managed to decrease the cost of fracking in their country by 60%. It seems that both the American and Chinese publics are skeptical about the process of fracking and how it will affect the environment. Americans are more vocal about the problems because it has appeared in their political topics of debate. The Chinese public historically believe that their government is continuously doing what is best for their country, whereas Americans tend to believe the worst of their government. This is why I believe that the Chinese seem more okay with the concept of fracking, but as stated earlier, there are many who are protesting the increasing advancements in fracking in China.
In conclusion, America is currently better at fracking, but China is the next closest country to reaching their natural gas output. China is investing significantly into fracking, but it is harder for them to frack because of the geography of their country. Both countries have few policies about fracking; they both want to increase the natural gas output quickly and efficiently. The citizens in both countries have concerns regarding fracking, but I think the Chinese are excited to use a different form of energy other than coal. In my opinion, I think both countries will start adding more policies on fracking once some environmental effects start to appear.
I would regulate fracking by implementing laws specifying where fracking can occur and who is authorized to frack. It seems that companies often prioritize their own benefits rather than environmental impacts, giving rise to devastating problems associated with fracking. I believe all companies intending to frack should pass certain courses or exams to obtain a license. Moreover, they should undergo annual inspections on all ongoing wells to ensure nothing improper is occurring. There ought to be a limit on the number of wells operated by each company, and within each geological location. If companies fail to comply with these protocols, their license should be revoked indefinitely. I do not think fracking should be permitted in densely populated areas, considering numerous issues have surfaced, such as natural gas contaminating residential water supplies. Therefore, fracking should be confined to areas with a population below a specified number. With respect to the use of fresh water in fracking, a preset quantity of water should be allowed for this purpose. Our fresh drinking water is more valuable than exports of natural gas. We should also investigate alternative ways to frack using saltwater, a resource in much greater abundance. Fracking is a notable innovation exploited by both the U.S. and China, but it necessitates mindful application. Human well-being should take precedence over making a profit for oil and gas companies.
- Aczel, & Makuch. (2018). The lay of the land: The public, participation and policy in China’s fracking frenzy. The Extractive Industries and Society, .
- DiChristopher, T. (2018, April 18). China is getting better at fracking, the technology that sparked the US natural gas boom. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/18/china-is-getting-better-at-fracking-which-sparked-the-us-shale-boom.html
- Hong Yang, Julian R. Thompson, & Roger J. Flower. (2015). Seismology: Improve oversight of fracking in China. Nature, 522(7554), 34.
- Manfreda, J. (2017, February 24). The Real History Of Fracking. Retrieved from https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/The-Real-History-Of-Fracking.html
- McMahon, D., & Yung, C. (2011). Corporate News: China Bids in Fracking — Cnooc, Sinopec Battle Saudi Aramco for Stake in U.S. Firm. Wall Street Journal, p. B.4.
- Skuman, D. (2018, October 15). What is fracking and why is it controversial? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401
- Totty, M. (2013). What a Difference Two Decades Can Make: Fracking, renewables and China’s rise are just a few of the things that have reshaped the energy picture over the past 20 years. Wall Street Journal, p. R.6.
- Yang, Hong, Huang, Xianjin, Yang, Qingyuan, Tu, Jianjun, Li, Shengfeng, Yang, Demin, . . . Thompson, Julian R. (2015). Water Requirements for Shale Gas Fracking in Fuling, Chongqing, Southwest China. Energy Procedia, 76(C), 106-112