As the rush to exploit shale reserves continues across the globe, Tunisia’s potential has come into the spotlight due to a number of conflicting reports from interested foreign firms and the country’s new government.
Facing expected increases in local demand and a weakened post-Arab Spring economy, which contracted 1.8 percent last year, a Tunisian shale boom would be a helpful step forward in terms of energy security and growth. While modest in comparison to larger shale markets, most notably the United States and China and to a lesser degree, Poland, Tunisia’s shale estimates suggest enough potential to change the energy landscape of this country of 10.5 million. According to a U.S. Energy Intelligence Agency report, as of 2009, Tunisia offered approximately 18 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas.
However, despite clearly stated interest on the part of several foreign firms and a lack of viable hydrocarbon alternatives, Tunisia’s current transitional government has avoided a clear embrace of the often-controversial extraction process.
A Growing Caution
As countries across the globe rush to replicate the progress seen in the United States over the last decade, many have rushed to partner with foreign partners with more direct experience with the costly and very technical shale extraction process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. The extraction, according to the UPI, “involves drilling into the rocks horizontally and then cracking them with a high-pressure missile of water mixed with sand and chemicals, to unlock the gas from the impermeable shale rock.”
The complexities of this process and the environmental risks involved have made introducing shale projects difficult into new markets increasingly difficult. Bolstered by reporting and advocacy groups in the United States, opposition has grown due to concern about possible harmful waste, water supplies and the potential impact irresponsible development could have on the local environment and aquifers. This has resulted in partial or outright bans on shale efforts across Europe and delays in government approval in several more countries.
Early reports suggest that these concerns may have had a hand in the delay or outright denial of licensing rights for shale projects in Tunisia. In late September, Tunisia’s Industry Ministry were pushed to respond to reports that they were preparing to grant an unconventional license to Shell in the Kairouan region of the country. Denying the completed agreement, the Ministry announced that while they had received a related application, they had responded with an appeal for an environmental and water impact analysis, according to an Al Bawaba report.
The water usage issue related to “fracking”, which can require millions of gallons for each well, is especially important for the arid North African region. The Ministry release did allow that government was considering shale options, stating, “Tunisia is mulling over producing shale gas to meet its growing domestic demand and the expected drop in traditional oil stock”.
However, just a few days later, the African Manager website reported that a source close to the case stated that shale efforts would likely be abandoned completely by the current government thanks to concerns about the potential environmental impact. While unconfirmed outside of that source, the report does reflect the lack of a clear narrative about the country’s current position on introducing shale efforts.
Ready and Waiting
However the country decides, they will have a number of potential partners to held lay a shale foundation. Earlier this year, Shell announced plans to pursue unconventional efforts in both Tunisia and neighboring Algeria, which has been much more assertive in their support for shale development. So far, Algiers has signed production agreements with Italy’s Eni and Shell, among others. Going so far as to introduce new hydrocarbon legislation to entice foreign investment in unconventional energy projects, Algeria has set a course for energy diversification, addressing a steady increase in domestic demand and allowing an increase in export revenue.
For Tunisia, the addition of shale to the country’s energy options would address more modest goals of just easing dependence on costly refined oil imports and the burden of steadily declining local oil reserves.
In addition to Shell, Winstar Resources have also expressed a strong interest in pursing what they feel is Tunisia’s vas energy potential. Despite reports of a possible sale of their Tunisian interests earlier this year, the Canadian company included a positive outlook of their access to the country’s shale potential in their August, second quarter corporate report. Earlier this year, representatives from Italy’s Eni suggested they might extend their shale reach beyond Algeria and were “thinking of entering the Tunisian shale gas market,” according to a Dow Jones report.
In late September, the country’s shale reserves also took center stage at the second annual Tunisia Oil and Gas Summit, where the keynote session explored Tunisia’s unconventional, including input from a number of foreign E&P firms and sponsor Halliburton. The US company has been at the forefront of shale excavation technology for decades.
It should be noted that even if the country’s transitional government side against introducing shale to the Tunisian landscape, presidential and parliamentary elections have now been scheduled for June of next year. With new leadership in sight, any opposition could face a limited lifespan. For their part, Shell has not included any information about unconventional projects in their online literature related to Tunisia, but did recently announce a $150 million oil exploration deal in the country.
Image: Agency Tunis African Press
Originally Posted: Newsbase’s AfrOil Monitor