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Algeria's shale gas: the people's fears and the state's options

Algeria recently witnessed a sharp debate over the mass migration of people to the southern town of Ein Saleh; many people fear that the new inhabitants have relocated in order to exploit the area's natural resource: shale gas. It would not be surprising to have such a debate, whether heated or calm, over a resource that occupies much of the country's economic potential and yet, what is surprising is that many of the country's residents refuse to talk about this particular subject with an open mind.

Many observers have expressed a point of view on this topic even though there was little debate about the desirability of exploiting the resource in the first place. More importantly, this question of what to do with it has not been addressed properly in the media; no one has discussed what the nature of this wealth actually is and how it can be used in our country. Petroleum and shale gas have caused many problems in Algeria's rural and desert areas, which have been plagued with many sectarian conflicts over territory, honour, pride and arms smuggling, among other things.

The above factors are not meant to suggest that southern Algerians are not well-versed in good manners and proper etiquette. On the contrary, they highlight that these people know quite well that nationalism and love for one's country must first be evident in the homeland itself, and that those who think in terms of capital do not know what nationalism is nor do they understand the hardships of living in the desert. In fact some areas of the Algerian desert are uninhabitable because of the extreme temperatures.

What are the people living in the Sahara saying about shale gas, especially those in Ein Saleh? They do not believe that water will soon make its way to their communities. We know that the water that will be taken there will be used to extract gas and other chemicals, but they do not believe that it will be kinder to them and their way of life than the sun with which they have lived for thousands of years. They understand that this water will not be for their use but that it will be used by the gas companies, especially from France. There is still a complex when it comes to all things French because we can still smell the stench of the colonial past, which continues to haunt us.

It is not surprising that everything related even remotely to France and the French is a headache for the Algerians. After all, when people objected to a French magazine's portrayal of Prophet Muhammad, officials were quick to alienate the dissenters as Frenchmen of Algerian origin who did not fit into or abide by the values of the republic.

I wish to speak of the shale gas issue before it begins and to speak of it in terms of those who are in favour, rather than from the perspective of southern Algerians. What people have been saying about the income that comes from oil is similar to religious opinions or arguments that claim that the radio is forbidden by Islam because it broadcasts music; or that the television is forbidden because it may show nudity; or that a mobile phone is forbidden because it allows men and women to speak to each other, and so on. What problems could oil income possibly cause? Could it be from the potential to exploit it? Northern Europeans have spared us from this debate by providing us with an example that we can follow. Questions about the consequences of oil revenues for our society lies with our mentality on the topic. We must develop an industry that promotes a strong work ethic without making a quick profit simply because the resource is available.

The main problem when it comes to dealing with this issue is more cultural than it is economic. It is this narrow mentality that has restricted the development of Algeria despite its vast size and beauty. There has long existed this idea that residential areas need to be confined to a narrow strip of land along the coastal plain; this is what has prevented the Algerian people from developing sophisticated cities in their desert areas, urban developments that would resemble other countries in similar positions.

Moreover, one must note that there is virtually no difference between shale gas and other forms of natural gas other than the nature of the rock that retains the oil underground. Thus, the question then becomes how to access this type of gas more efficiently as normal types of natural gas are accessed via vertical drilling. Shale gas is accessed through horizontal drilling due to the differences in rock composition. The extraction of shale gas requires large quantities of water and a mixture of chemicals that can only be carried out by oil specialists.

The main chemical used in the process is helium, which ultimately has no negative environmental impact. This manner of extracting oil was patented by Chimera Energy Corp and has been used in other parts of the world with compressed air rather than water to fracture the rock. This has been tested in the Polar Regions as well as in China and Texas. Removing shale gas in this way has in some ways silenced the debate about the environmental effects of oil extraction, especially in Europe.

Developments in this domain have encouraged many to consider the economic and political benefits of extracting shale gas, not least because previous methods used led to serious environmental and ecological damage, especially the pollution of underground water resources. The new method noted above will allow the people living in the Algerian desert to gain access to underwater aquifers, which is important because, very soon, water will be more expensive than gas in such areas. If this project is done properly, Algeria could have the potential to export gas and develop the country's agriculture.

It is important that the criticism surrounding the extraction of Algeria's natural shale gas should not be ignored, but the country cannot afford not to exploit this resource in the current global market. The people must ensure that they remain involved in this process and that the state does not abuse public wealth. Moreover, the use of helium and thermal power to break through the rock can solve the problem of pollution and prevent the depletion of groundwater. In any case, the debate over the country's natural resources should never come before its national interests in all realms.

Translated from Raialyoum, 22 January, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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