Algeria’s U-turn on shale exploration

Algerian flag
Source: DollarPhotoClub

A little over a week after Algeria’s state-owned giant Sonatrach announced that it will invest no less than $70 billion in the exploitation of shale gas in the country, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said in a televised interview that shale exploration is not on the government’s agenda.

The U-turn is likely to have been prompted by the protests against shale gas exploration near the town of In Selah in southern Algeria, which have erupted early this month.

“We organised protests last year but the debate cooled a bit because the government agreed to hold off beginning the extraction of shale gas until 2022. However, at the end of December last year, the prime minister came to inaugurate the country’s first drilling site, located about 28 kilometres from In Salah… And we had not even been warned about his visit. All this reignited the movement,” Hacina Zegzeg, one of the coordinators for the protest movement, told France 24.

The protests which erupted in In Salah and spread to other southern cities in Algeria, were principally caused by the fears that the scarce water supply would be contaminated during the extraction process.

“In In Salah, the groundwater table is fossilized, meaning that the water doesn’t replenish itself. Fracking requires an enormous amount of water and can also pollute the soil. We are at risk of having polluted water and running out of water entirely,” Hacina Zegzeg explained

During his interview, the Prime Minister tried to put these concerns to rest, saying: “Between shale gas and water, the Algerian people will choose water and you think the Algerian state would be crazy enough to endanger the lives of its citizens?” he asked the interviewer. “We are a responsible government.”

He explained the current activities in the south of the country by the need to acquire expertise in the field, saying: “the Government has fixed, on the instruction of President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika, deadlines for studies at 2022 so to better understand the matter and have estimates of the underground shale gas reserves.”

“The policy currently followed by the Government for the development of the domestic energy production is based on renewable energy investments and the possibility of shale gas exploitation is being left for future generations; if necessary,” added the Prime Minister.

Talking about what is currently done in the southern region of Algeria, Sellal stressed that “an operation of shale gas prospection was conducted through the drilling of a first well in Ahnet (In Salah, 1300 km south of Algiers)) which has gave excellent results,” adding that a second well is being drilled.

“Once those two wells are drilled, studies will be carried out over a four year period, which will focus on the preservation of groundwater and the health of citizens,” he added.

“Algerian executives will be trained during these four years,” he added, noting that Sonatrach plans to build a training centre in In Salah.

Algeria is Africa’s largest gas producer and supplier of a fifth Europe’s gas needs, but with many of its fields maturing, and 707 trillion cubic feet of estimated technically recoverable shale gas, the country could certainly benefit from shale exploration. The Prime Minister, however, was adamant that drilling Algeria’s unconventional deposits is not on the cards, saying: “it is inconceivable to start shale gas without the authorizations of the Council of Ministers and such a project is not on the agenda.”

“Until now, we have given no authorization for the exploitation of shale gas and we do not intend to do on the short term,” the Prime Minister declared to reassure the people of the South, adding that “the current energy program (in conventional hydrocarbons) will continue until 2030.”

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