Anti-fracking protests have escalated in the small Algerian town of In Salah since the start of January, and have now spread to neighboring towns in the region. The demonstrations have continued despite the government's announcement that plans to tap shale gas reserves have been temporarily shelved amid growing public concern over the environmental impact.
Residents of In Salah, a town of 36,000 that is located 750 miles south of the capital Algiers, have been protesting relentlessly since January 1 against the government's proposed plans to extract shale gas through the use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, following initial drilling tests in the region.
Last week, the protests spread to other cities across southern Algeria, and also to the northern coastal cities of Algiers and Oran. In a country where 60 percent of the national budget comes from oil revenue, the government has been trying to diversify its income stream by developing unconventional resources such as shale gas, which it says will aid in the country's energy transition.
In December 2014, Algerian energy minister Youcef Yousfi announced that test shale gas drilling in the Ahnet Basin — 20 miles south of In Salah — had yielded "very promising" results, and described the first fracking operation as a "success." The announcement caused significant public opposition in the nearby town.
Despite an announcement in July 2013 by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal that the government was only conducting surveys, and that there would be no fracking until at least 2024, many fear that drilling could start ahead of schedule. The temptation for the government act quickly is great, since Algeria currently trails only China and Argentina in recoverable shale gas resources, according to a report by the US Energy Information Administration.
The Algerian government declined to comment when contacted by VICE News.
Moussa Kacem, a mining expert at the University of Oran in Algeria, told VICE News that fracking poses a potential threat to the ecosystem in the Sahara.
"Shale gas drilling causes gas emissions, including methane emissions, which have a massive impact on global warming," Kacem said. "You have to understand that the Sahara has an arid climate, the temperature in the summer is over 122 degrees. So gas emissions are going to accelerate climate change, and we're going to see higher temperatures across the region."
Kacem said the processes involves drilling both vertically and horizontally into shale, a permeable type of rock, then injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to "fracture" the rock and release the natural gas inside.
Concerns about the environmental impact and health hazards associated with fracking have led to bans in some countries, including France and Bulgaria. Plans for shale gas extraction have also stalled in Poland.
Kacem said fracking also threatens "the Saharan agriculture, which is already suffering from lack of water." The process consumes huge quantities of water, and at the same time, "the chemicals used — some of which are carcinogenic — contaminate the groundwater supply, which can lead to the contamination of farmland," he said.
Mansouria Mokhefi, a special advisor for the Middle East and the Maghreb at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) and a professor at New York University in Paris, told VICE News that southern Algeria "has already been in turmoil for a year." The region "has been rocked by all kinds of smuggling, but also by Islamist movements," Mokhefi said.
With those issues as a backdrop, fracking opponents have continued to mobilize and grow their movement, which began January 1 when some 1,500 protesters staged a peaceful demonstration in In Salah. In the past few weeks, the protests have spread to neighboring towns and further north to various oases in the Algerian Sahara. According to reports, a 21-year-old demonstrator named Mohamed El Noui died January 4 during clashes with the police. Officials in Algiers banned a January 17 protest, but people still took to the streets last week in Oran and other northern towns.
Mokhefi said the popular uprising against fracking is symptomatic of "the deep divide between the government and the population — there is profound mistrust for all government operations." The protests have motivated Algerians to "tackle issues at large in the country, like the transition into democracy or into a post-oil age. Shale gas has helped contextualize other greater issues," Mokhefi said.
The government's interest in shale gas is not a new phenomenon, and contrary to common assumption, it is not a result of the recent collapse of the price of oil. Test drilling goes back to 2011, when Sonatrach — an Algerian government-owned company formed to exploit the country's hydrocarbon resources — drilled its first shale gas wells in the Ahnet Basin. In January 2013, the Algerian National Assembly amended the country's law on hydrocarbons to allow for the exploitation of unconventional resources.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Photo via Flickr / Angeoun