Anti-fracking demonstrations turned violent this weekend in the small Algerian oasis town of In Salah, when police clashed with protesters.
The clashes erupted outside a fracking site managed by American company Halliburton, which has been conducting initial drilling tests in the Algerian desert, a few miles outside of In Salah.
French daily Le Monde reported that angry crowds torched a local government building and a police truck, and injured 40 officers. According to Algerian daily El Watan, the police retaliated with real bullets, and a local hospital said it had treated 20 injured protesters.
Residents of In Salah, a town of 36,000, located 750 miles south of the capital Algiers, have been protesting almost daily for months 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.
The protests escalated in February and spread from the Tamanrasset province to other cities across southern Algeria, and also to the northern coastal cities of Algiers and Oran.
Major general Amar Athamnia, the military chief of Tamanrasset, traveled to In Salah Tuesday in an attempt ease the mounting tension between police and protesters, and said that any incidents of police abuse would be punished.
Algiers-based anti-fracking campaigner Medhi Bsikri told VICE News that protesters had marched on the Halliburton compound at the weekend to hand officials a petition calling for a moratorium on fracking.
Locals and environmentalists are concerned that, once the test drilling phase comes to an end in a few weeks, the government will authorize shale gas drilling for commercial purposes.
Test drilling in the region goes back to 2011, when Sonatrach — a government-owned company formed to exploit Algeria's hydrocarbon resources — drilled its first shale gas wells in the Ahnet basin. At some point, Sonatrach approached oil field service company Halliburton to undertake initial drilling exercises in the region.
Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Sonatrach confirmed that the exploration phase was intended to "survey Algeria's [shale gas] reserves" and was due to end in a few weeks. The exploitation of wells, said the spokesperson, would be "held off until 2022, as per the parliamentary order."
According to Nicolas Mazzucchi, a research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), "The government's rhetoric seems coherent enough. There have been so many mistakes when it comes to estimating shale gas reserves, that countries are undertaking lengthy and costly exploration campaigns."
Algeria has been exploring plans to diversify its income stream through the development of unconventional resources such as shale gas, which it says will aid in the country's energy transition.
"When Algeria became independent [from France, in 1962], there was a great oil boom. But it's true that today, [the sector] is in decline," said says Mazzuchi. "Since the 90s, conventional natural gas has become Algeria's number resource."
Despite the government's announcement that it would shelve plans to tap the country's shale gas reserves until 2022, many fear that fracking could start sooner. A recent dramatic drop in the price per oil barrel has only compounded these fears, in a country where 60 percent of the State budget is derived from oil revenue.
A growing concern
There has been growing public concern around the health hazards associated with fracking and the lasting environmental impact of shale gas extraction on the unique Saharan ecosystem. Environmentalists fear that drilling will lead to the contamination and overuse of desert groundwater. Another concern is that fracking will speed up climate change, by releasing important quantities of methane gas into the atmosphere, thus threatening an already-arid climate.
"The residents of In Salah — whose concerns we understand — have been terrified senseless by films like Gasland [a documentary that is fiercely critical of fracking]," said spokesman for Sonatrach. "People used to say that cell phones caused sterility. But today, everyone has a cell phone. It's the same thing with shale gas; we have to make the case for it and let people know about it."
"We have to heed the call of the people," said Bsikri, "and the people oppose this project." Bsikri told VICE News that the residents of In Salah advocate for "a peaceful and frank national debate, which would be an honorable and diplomatic solution for all parties."
But despite the continued opposition of locals, the government is showing no signs of backing down on its fracking agenda.
On February 24, protesters had hoped to mark the 44th anniversary of the nationalization of the Algerian oil industry with an enormous anti-fracking protest in the streets of the capital. But the government banned the rally, and in a speech marking the anniversary president Abdelaziz Bouteflika called the country's shale gas reserves "a gift from God," adding that it was the country's "duty to use them for ourselves and future generations."
Algeria at the heart of energy geopolitics
Algeria's plentiful shale gas reserves could prove to be a cash cow for the country, 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 is taking into account geostrategic factors," explained mining expert Moussa Kacem, a professor at the University of Oran. According to Kacem, the US is currently driving the effort to seek alternative gas providers for the European market.
But according to Mazzucchi, Algeria's shale gas drilling exercises are "first and foremost an Algerian government initiative, not a Western one. The government is hoping to become the leader of the North African oil-gas sector, since its main competitor Libya is now out of the game."
Mazzucchi thinks Algeria is poised to become Africa's main natural gas exporter with the Trans-Saharan Gas-Pipeline (TSGP), a planned natural gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria. The pipeline, which is part of an effort to diversity the EU's gas supply, will link Nigeria, "who doesn't know what to do with its gas with Algeria's gas ports," said the researcher.
For anti-fracking advocate Bsikri, "going down the fracking route will be a financial disaster for Algeria." Bsikri thinks the estimated $90 billion cost of tapping the country's shale gas reserves would be better spent on developing alternative sources of energy.
A concern not shared by Mazzucchi, who thinks Algeria's fracking plans are mostly export-driven. "Algeria is developing a solar energy program, which is still in its early days, to ensure the country's energy security." Shale gas, he told VICE News, will be exploited as an exportable commodity, and will allow Algeria to sign lucrative "long-term energy contracts with European companies."
Mazzuchi believes Halliburton will not be present in the region beyond the exploration phase. "If we find major [shale gas] reserves, a big company like Exxon Mobil will come to Algeria," he said, adding that, "Sonatrach, and with it the Algerian state, will get their hands on a big slice of the cake."
When contacted by VICE News, Halliburton declined to comment on the company's activities in Algeria, specifically. The Algerian government also declined to comment.
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Image via In Salah Sun and Power / Facebook