Power-starved India should explore shale gas deposits

In the late 1990s, George Mitchell an oil-wells owner in Texas developed an affordable way of extracting gas locked up in shale rock by blasting them with water, sand and chemicals.

This technique was called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. America’s shale gas industry has since drilled 20,000 wells, created hundreds of thousands of jobs and produced a lot of cheap gas; it has also rejuvenated several industries like petrochemicals, where ethane produced from natural gas is the feedstock.

 The production of shale gas in America has increased from 4 per cent of the total gas production in 2005 to 24 per cent today due to liberal regulation  of pipelines, grant of subsidies and the availability of an abundance of drill-rigs and other infrastructure. The anti-shale gas lobby contends that its production uses a lot of energy and water;  possible contamination of aquifers by methane, fracking fluids etc; a large amount of methane, a greenhouse gas is emitted in the process;  and  it might even induce earthquakes.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the risks could be managed by adequately sealed  well-shafts which do not leak; preventing gas venting and flaring would bring down methane emissions to an acceptable level; the risk of tremors  which commonly occur as a result of producing natural gas can be contained by careful monitoring;  these measures would add about 7 per cent to the cost of production which is  a small price to pay for environmental protection and the health of a promising  industry.

On the other hand, burning shale gas emits only half as much carbon dioxide as coal; in America the emissions fell by 450 million tons in 5 years. The fracking boom in America has led to a surge in natural gas production, a decline in oil imports and a gradual movement away from coal-fired power plants.

The National Geographical Research Institute, Hyderabad (NGRI) has identified 28 sedimentary basins of shale gas (natural gas trapped in shale formations underground) including 10 potential basins across India which hold about 527 trillion cubic ft of shale gas reserves. The ONGC had announced plans to start a pilot project for exploitation of shale gas resources in 2011. Prime minister Manmohan Singh announced on March 23 that the country had started mapping its shale resources and expects to have exploration rules by 2013. 

Commercial production by 2017

According to  A M Dayal, emeritus scientist at NGRI,  India can look forward to commercial production of shale gas by 2017.

In the 12th Five year Plan, NGRI plans to work in the Cambay Basin, Assam-Arakan Basin, the Krishna-Godavari Basin and the Damodar Basin; its  analysis of the core of the shale for geo-chemistry and petro-physics would provide a good guidance to companies entering the field. Dayal says that there is an immediate need to tap shale gas resources, as after Bombay High there was no big discovery on the conventional front.  

  Shale gas production companies in the US have discovered recently that powder of guar, a bean currently used to thicken ice cream etc could stiffen water so much that the mixture is able to carry sand sideways into wells drilled horizontally in the process called fracking. Guar is grown in Rajasthan and Punjab and India produces about 85 per cent of the world’s guar. The entire guar production in India last year was sold to US companies.

An international effort is under way to ensure that guar supplies would be adequate to meet the soaring demand, and a very large number of farmers in India have been recruited in the effort. So Indian companies will have to face competition for guar seed powder from American companies as and when they start producing shale gas.

 India has to exploit every source of unconventional energy like wind and solar power, bio-diesel, ethanol etc to reduce the drain on foreign exchange and contain environmental pollution. The IEA’s suggestions on reducing the adverse effects of shale gas production will have to be necessarily implemented by companies entering this business. India faces several additional constraints in this area. An enormous amount of water is required in the production of shale gas; how this can be met has to be resolved considering India’s water shortages.

Further, in India shale gas is mostly found about 2,000 metres below the ground on shore in areas of human habitation. High powered compressors and other equipment could unsettle the local population and drilling for shale gas may also affect the ground water resources. Indian companies will have to enter into agreements with American companies  for utilising their know how; they  may, therefore, have to be subsidised either through tax relief or directly for the first 5-10 years to induce them to take up this new line of business.

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