- Poor water availability could hamper efforts to develop Saudi Arabia's shale gas resources, in order to meet growing gas demand from Saudi industry.
- Water recycling and alternative fracking fluids could provide the solution.
Recent comments by Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, indicated that Saudi Aramco would soon begin exploring the country's shale gas resources. As another means of reducing oil consumption in the Kingdom's electricity sector, in order to preserve oil exports, this appears to make both practical and economic sense. However, as noted by the Wall St. Journal, compared to the US Saudi Arabia has much less water available for the hydraulic fracturing of shale and tight gas reservoirs. Absent a reallocation of its substantial conventional gas production, Saudi shale gas could become a key factor in global energy security. However, the techniques employed to extract it might be different from those that currently dominate the US shale gas scene.
It must seem odd that Saudi Arabia would even be interested in shale gas, a resource that wasn't exploited in the US until conventional gas production was declining steadily. Saudi Arabia might still be the world's largest oil producer, at least for now, but it is not the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas". Although the country has proved gas reserves comparable to those of the US, it apparently didn't win nature's gas lottery on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi gas reserves and production amount to only about 10% and 19%, respectively, of the Middle East's gas totals. Iran and Qatar are far ahead. And while Saudi gas production has doubled since 2000, output in neighboring Qatar has expanded by a factor of six in the same interval.
Much of the Kingdom's conventional gas reserves are associated with oil production and are often required to be reinjected to maintain reservoir pressure and oil output. Available Saudi gas has been preferentially allocated to industrial projects, such as petrochemicals expansion. As a result, little new gas was supplied for power generation, so the Saudi electricity sector has been burning large and increasing quantities of oil that could otherwise be exported. The need for additional gas has become acute, but exploration in the vast Empty Quarter has not yielded the expected gas bonanza, while the internal price of natural gas has been constrained at levels well below even recent low US natural gas prices--too low to make most new production attractive on its own merits.
As if the economics of shale gas development weren't challenging enough in such an environment, the key ingredient that has fueled the US shale revolution, water, is in short supply in Saudi Arabia. The needs of cities and industry in this arid country exceed the water supply from aquifers to such an extent as to require 27 desalination facilities, delivering nearly 300 billion gallons annually. At several million gallons of water per hydraulically fractured shale gas well, the logic of burning oil to desalinate water to produce gas looks questionable. Fortunately, there are multiple emerging pathways for reducing or eliminating net water consumption in "fracking".
For starters, many US producers now routinely recycle the 10-30% of injected water that typically flows back from the well after hydraulic fracturing, for use in subsequent wells. Recycling has become the standard in places like Pennsylvania's portion of the Marcellus shale, reducing the call on fresh water for fracking. The oil services industry offers various techniques for cleaning "flowback" water, and new ones are under development, including the use of algae.
Drillers can further reduce freshwater consumption through the use of nitrogen in foam or other forms. ERDA, a precursor of the US Department of Energy, conducted research on that technique in the 1970s, and it has been refined since then. Nitrogen is readily available from air separation plants and does not depend on water, though it does require energy.
Another approach for waterless fracking has been field-tested in Canada, using gelled propane. A blog post in Scientific American described some of the pros and cons of this method, which is more expensive where water is cheap but might fit the bill in dry regions where LPG is readily available. For that matter, it might make sense in New Mexico if the Mancos Shale of the San Juan Basin turns out to be another viable tight oil play.
The upshot is that a shortage of fresh water shouldn't constitute an insurmountable obstacle to exploiting Saudi Arabia's unconventional gas resources, which Mr. Al-Naimi cited at 600 trillion cubic feet. However, it remains to be seen whether shale gas development is the best answer to a problem that has been created by selling natural gas to industry for as little as $0.75 per million BTUs, while burning $100 oil ($17 per million BTU) to generate electricity. Whether the ultimate solution is shale gas or something else, resolving this gap in Saudi industrial policy could have a significant impact on future oil prices.
A slightly different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.