China planning ‘huge fracking industry’, Chinese plans to expand fracking for shale gas prompt fears over local water and international climate impacts by Jaeah Lee for Mother Jones, November 27, 2012, The Guardian
China is ratcheting up its fracking ambitions with virtually no regard for groundwater protection or other environmental safety measures, according to a new investigation by the independent publication Caixin. The report points to an 24 October white paper on energy development released by China’s top cabinet which “calls for ramping up the industry and pumping 6.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from underground shale formations by 2015.” “The model for China’s anticipated success is the US shale gas sector,” the article states. “Geologists estimate the nation’s recoverable reserves at about 25 trillion cubic meters, on par with the United States.” … But fracking isn’t without environmental problems, as I and my colleagues at Mother Jones have reported before. And Caixin’s review of government documents as well as interviews with industry sources, government officials, and environmental advocates reveal that fracking’s risks have not come under public scrutiny the way they have in the US, “much less addressed by the [Chinese] government or controlled via environmental laws.”
If fracking takes off in China as planned, it will likely exacerbate the nation’s existing water crisis. “Most of the nation’s shale gas lies in areas plagued by water shortages,” the report says. With about 20 percent of the world’s population and only 6 percent of the world’s water resources, China is one of the least water-secure countries in the world. Its water shortages are made worse by pollution: According to the Ministry of Water Resources about 40 percent of China’s rivers were so polluted they were deemed unfit for drinking, while about 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water each year.
In order to reach the government’s annual shale gas production goal of 6.5 billion cubic meters by 2015, as many as 1,380 wells will need to be drilled across the country, requiring up to 13.8 million cubic meters of water, an industry source told Caixin. China’s industrial sector already consumes about 35 billion cubic meters of water a year. That amount of water would fill about 14 million Olympic-size swimming pools.
There’s also serious risk of water contamination, as seen in the US fracking experience. Multiple studies in recent years including those by the EPA, Pennsylvania, and Duke University have concluded that shale gas drilling releases methane which can contaminate nearby water supplies. A 2009 ProPublica investigation found methane contamination from fracking was widespread in Colorado, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But as Caixin reports, “there would be no legal reason to limit methane emissions at a shale gas well because China’s pollution standards do not cover methane.“ One Ministry of Environmental Protection source told the publication that writing a new standard into law would take three years, “which helps explain why the State Council’s decision to fast-track the nation’s fledgling shale gas industry is making a lot of people nervous.” Groundwater in 57 percent of China’s 660 cities have already been significantly polluted, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. An unidentified source at China’s Ministry of Land Resources told Caixin that as shale gas development accelerates the government will likely introduce specific environmental policies to address fracking, such as groundwater protection. But these are not likely to be legally binding, an industry source told the publication.
Meanwhile, Caixin reported that one test fracking operation in Shaanxi Province—a major coal region in China’s dry North—recently “went awry, forcing local officials to temporarily cut a nearby city’s water supply.” [Emphasis added]