Are oil and gas companies fracking up Egypt’s environment?

Are oil and gas companies fracking up Egypt’s environment? by Steven Viney, October 21, 2012, Egypt Independent
It could be a nightmare for environmentalists in a country like Egypt, which faces severe water threats and lives almost solely off the Nile. Fracking bans have usually been put in place for the same reason: the country’s clean water comes from a single source.

“We are not looking for a permanent ban on fracking,” says Reem Labib, environmental justice and rights researcher at EIPR. “We simply want it halted until comprehensive studies can be done to ensure Egypt has the facilities to monitor fracking efficiently. If the Nile becomes completely toxic, what will become of Egypt?”

Shell is the first company to use foam fracking in North Africa. Other gas companies have been using different versions of the method for years. The United Arab Emirates-based Dana Gas has been fracking in Kom Ombo in the Nile Valley, and the Texas-based Apache Corporation has used the technique in the Western Desert near important aquifers. Local companies have also drilled using this method. Dana Gas was unavailable for comment on this article, but Shell and Apache representatives confidently said they completely abide by Egypt’s many oil and gas regulations and provide the required environmental impact reports to obtain fracking permits.

Bill Mintz, Apache’s public relations director in Houston, explains that fracking has only proven to be dangerous when irresponsible companies do not use the proper, clean materials and dispose of their waste properly. “That was the big problem in the US — that many irresponsible fracking procedures were dumping their wastewater on surrounding surfaces,” he says.

“Gasland” highlighted this aspect of the problem, but studies also show breakages in steel hollow casings that enter the bores, which have also cracked in the past and allowed toxic substances to escape. Nonetheless, it is precisely this hit-and-miss reputation associated with fracking that frightens environmentalists and activists, who say the country does not have the resources to monitor, analyze and shut down the companies using irresponsible procedures. Even if only one fracking procedure goes awry, what happens if it’s one situated by the Nile, such as the Dana Gas project in Kom Ombo?

“There will certainly be companies abusing the environmental procedures and cutting corners, making use of the current political disarray and weak regulation enforcements,” says Mika Minio-Paluello, a member of the London organization Platform, which monitors oil and gas companies.

Minio-Paluello is now based in Egypt to help monitor the technique here. “In the US, you could take legal cases, but here the legal framework is fragile, and environmental issues are low priority at best.” But are the legal procedures required through national environmental bodies, namely the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), really that weak when it comes to oil and gas drilling? Mahmoud Shawky is a leading member of the department that oversees the environmental impact reports at the agency, and looks at documents required to obtain drilling permits. He says oil and gas monitoring appears to be one agency sector that fights particularly hard to efficiently regulate drilling.

But after inquiring about highly technical procedures, with terminology such as hydraulic fracturing and some of the extremely complex chemical names used, such as 2,2-dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide — often justified by saying they are the same ingredients in household items — there seems to be plenty of room to cut corners.

“It’s the room for loopholes in regulations that we are mainly worried about,” says Labib, who, in the meantime, is setting up traveling campaigns to raise awareness about fracking sites like Dana Gas in Kom Ombo, as well as general awareness campaigns in Cairo. “People need to be warned and made aware to draw a link to the drilling if they start falling ill or finding their crops going bad.”

In addition to the environmental concerns surrounding the controversial procedure, fracking is also extremely expensive, leading many environmentalists to wonder why this same money is not poured into investing in an alternative. But this aside, when it comes to fracking, nobody is pointing any fingers — yet.

“It’s a two-sided issue,” explains Labib. “We need to make sure that if Egypt is going to keep fracking, that the enforcement agencies are capable to monitor activities carefully. But on the other hand, we also need to ensure that gas and oil companies in Egypt are being responsible and honest with their applications, and not abusing our weak regulations.” Meanwhile, EIPR is maintaining its demand for a moratorium on fracking until these issues are formally addressed. “When it comes down to it, really, what’s more important: gas and oil, or water?” Labib says. [Emphasis added]

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