Science, Tech & Environment

China turns to fracking to help meet growing energy demand

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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Workers close a valve of a pipe at a PetroChina refinery in Lanzhou, China. (Photo by Reuters.)

Years of rapid development in China have made it the world's biggest energy consumer, and the country is now scambling to find newer and cleaner technologies to keep up with its rising demand. 

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China gets three-quarters of its power from coal, one of the dirtiest fuels around. It's the main reason so many of China's cities are choked with smog, and why the country is now the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter.

China energy analyst Bill Dodson says the country's decision to use 200-year-old technologies is "one of the disappointments in China's rapid development." But recently, China has found a promising alternative to coal, and to get to it they're using the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technique.

Fracking is a relatively new way of getting at cleaner-burning natural gas. It uses pressurized water and chemicals to fracture soft shale rock deep underground and pump out natural gas trapped inside. The technology is revolutionizing energy markets and helping gas take a big bite out of coal use in the United States.

"We'd like to repeat the same successful story in China," said Yang Fuqiang, an adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.

Yang says China is already making big strides in pollution-free power sources like wind and solar, but they're still likely to provide only 15 percent of China’s energy by 2020.

"That is not enough," Yang said. "Another way is to develop more natural gas and shale gas."

China has huge untapped shale gas deposits that supporters hope can serve as a bridge between coal and broader use of renewables. The country has already drilled several dozen trial wells.

In March, state-owned PetroChina signed its first production agreement with the western energy giant, Royal Dutch Shell. China has also invited other global energy players to bring in their technology and expertise.

But no one's sure if the investment will pay off.

"There is no guarantee that the technology will be suitable for China," said Tao Wang, a scholar at Beijing's Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Much of the shale in China may be difficult to fracture. The pockers also tends to be located under rugged and remote terrain. Tao says the Chinese are tempering their hopes for fracking.

Then there are the perhaps more formidable challenges. Perhaps the biggest is that fracking requires huge amounts of water. That's a big concern in a place like China, where the age-old problem of water shortages is written into traditional songs like "The Yellow River is Dry."

Dodson, the energy analyst, says China's water problems are only getting worse. Fracking would have to compete for the ever-scarcer supplies with industry, agriculture and growing cities.

But others say that's not a deal breaker.

Ming Sung, a former chemical engineer for Shell who's now with the Clean Air Task Force, says he's cautiously optimistic about the environmental benefits of fracking. That's partially because there are now technologies that allow fracking operations to recycle the water they use. Researchers are also exploring chemical alternatives to water.

But that just gets to other concerns about fracking.

Opponents say the chemicals used in fracking already pose a hazard to water supplies. There's also concern about leaks of methane into the atmosphere.

Ming says such leaks could undermine one of fracking's major benefits. As a greenhouse gas, he says, methane "is 20-some to 100 times worse than CO2."

All of these environmental concerns have led to a significant public backlash against fracking in the U.S.

Yang, the adviser in Beijing, says many Chinese environmental groups still don't know much about the technology. But it's just a matter of time before they learn.

Meanwhile, China's environmental movement is becoming more assertive. In July, a protest against plans for a new wastewater pipeline in Qidong led authorities to scrap the project the very same day.

For now at least, the Chinese government has modest hopes for fracking. Its targeted shale gas production will cover just two or three percent of the country's energy needs by 2020.

But like so much else in China these days, the energy picture is changing fast. And what happens with fracking here could ultimately have a major effect around the world.