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The Sahara Desert in Algeria
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Fracking war: North Africa

Some of the first protests against hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and natural gas drilling occurred in good ol’ Pennsylvania.  From there, they moved on to New York and across the seas to Europe.  Following New York’s footsteps, countries in Europe, including France, Germany and Bulgaria, dealt with the protests by applying fracking bans.  Other countries, such as South Africa, put moratoriums in place.  However, protests against hydraulic fracturing operations have now hit Algeria, a nation that is rich in oil and gas.

At the beginning of January, anti-fracking protests took a serious turn in In Salah, a small town in Algeria, and spread to neighboring towns in the area.  Despite the government’s announcement that further expansion in developing shale gas reserves has been halted–due to public concern of the environmental impacts–protests have continued on.

In Salah is located 750 miles south of the capital of Algiers and is home to about 36,000 people.  Since January 1st, residents protesting against the government’s proposed plans to use fracking to extract shale gas in the region have been relentless.  During the week of January 19th, protests expanded to other cities across southern Algeria and into the northern coastal cities of Algiers and Oran.

In Algeria, oil revenue accounts for 60 percent of the national budget.  The government has been attempting to diversify the country’s income stream by developing unconventional resources, such as shale gas.  Algeria’s government says that shale gas operations will aid the country’s energy transition.

During December 2014, Algerian energy minister Youcef Yousfi said that shale gas test drilling in the Ahnet Basin, located 20 miles south of In Sahal, showed promising results and deemed the first fracking operation very successful.  However, in July 2013, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal announced that the government was only conducting surveys, and fracking would not occur until at least 2024.  Many residents are worried that with Yousfi announcing the success in the test drilling, fracking will start before 2024, even though the prime minister stated it wouldn’t.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Algeria is ranked third for recoverable shale gas resources, falling behind only China and Argentina.  This is an extremely tempting reason for the government of Algeria to act quickly regarding fracking now that its success has been demonstrated in North America and across Europe.

Algerian people, specifically those residing in In Sahal, are arguing against the use of hydraulic fracturing because of the environmental impacts it could have on the Sahara Desert.  Moussa Kacem, a mining expert at the University of Oran in Algeria, told VICE News that fracking can pose 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 … 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.”

Such environmental concerns, along with health concerns, have led to fracking bans in several countries, including France and Bulgaria.  Currently, plans for shale gas extraction in Poland have been put on pause due to such concerns.

Kacem also said fracking threatens the agriculture taking place in the Sahara because of the massive amounts of water needed–the Sahara is already suffering from lack of water. Using that precious water for fracking would leave the agricultural industry in a lurch.  He also expressed concern that the water used in fracking can contaminate groundwater and can lead to contamination of farmland.

Mansouria Mokhefi, a special advisor for the Middle East and the Maghreb located at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), and a professor at New York University in Paris, explained how Algeria has been in chaos for the past year and has suffered from smuggling and Islamist movements.  With these issues already occurring in the country, fracking is a problem Algeria doesn’t need on its plate at the moment.

Since January 1st, when 1,500 protestors orchestrated a peaceful demonstration in In Sahal, fracking challengers have continued to assemble and expand their campaign.  Over the past weeks, protests have spread to neighboring towns and up into the north to various oases in the Algerian Sahara.  On January 4th, reports say that during a protest 21-year-old Mohamed El Noui died while participating in the demonstration.  Following the January 4th protest, another protest scheduled for January 17th was banned by Officials of Algeirs, but demonstrators still protested in the streets in Oran and other northern towns.

According to Mokhefi, the uprising against fracking is associated with “the deep divide between the government and the population — there is profound mistrust for all government operations.”  Mokhefi believes all of the protests have driven Algerians “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.”

The Algerian government’s interest in shale is not a new concept, and surprisingly it is not due to the recent downslide of the price of oil.  Test drilling in Algeria dates back to 2011, when Sonatrach, a government-owned company that was formed to exploit Algeria’s hydrocarbon resources, drilled its first shale gas well in the Ahnet Basin.  In January 2013, the Algerian National Assembly revised the country’s law on hydrocarbons to allow the exploration of unconventional resources to take place.

Today, the war on fracking is ongoing across the world, through placing moratoriums, banning the process altogether or developing rules and regulations to keep the process as safe as possible.  For Algeria and the Sahara Desert, only time will tell what will come of the country’s decision on fracking and its abundance of oil and gas.