Arab states rush to join the shale boom

Dec. 7, 2012 at 3:14 PM   |   Comments

AMMAN, Jordan, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Jordan is pressing ahead with plans to develop its massive shale oil deposits, joining a growing push by Arab states to unlock shale reserves because conventional deposits are being squeezed to cope with burgeoning populations and industrialization.

The Hashemite kingdom, long bereft of major resources and grappling with widening political unrest, finds itself with the fourth largest shale oil accumulation in the world -- 40 billion-70 billion tons of oil under around 60 percent of the country's arid land surface.

That could mean up to 100 billion barrels of oil, says Jordan Mining and Energy, the British firm which is one of three companies that hold 40-year shale oil concessions in the country.

For Jordan, which has to spend some $4 billion a year on energy imports, that's an economic life-saver that could yet spare its besieged monarchy.

Other Middle Eastern states have larger shale deposits but few need them more than economically strapped, politically troubled Jordan.

"North America's shale gas boom has radically altered the global energy landscape ... helping to plug energy shortfalls," the Middle East Economic Digest observed.

"Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been slow to show interest because many have plentiful reserves of conventional gas.

"But surging energy demand, driven by swelling populations and industrial growth, has prompted some countries to review their options, particularly the fuel potential presented by tight gas and deeper shale," the weekly, published in the United Arab Emirates, reported.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration disclosed in 2011 that there is a staggering 5,760 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas outside North America.

"North Africa appears to have significant reserves, with Libya leading the pack," MEED observed.

Libya, still struggling to recover from a 2011 civil war that could open up its energy riches as never before, has an estimated 290 tcf of gas.

Algeria, another major North African energy producer, has 231 tcf, Tunisia 18 tcf. It was the first North African state to engage in fracking to extract unconventional gas reserves. Algeria, which is moving to expand its reserves of oil and natural gas, has also thrown itself into the pursuit of shale gas.

"The initial results of the evaluation of non-conventional gases, mainly shale gas, have shown the reserves in the country to at least equal to U.S. reserves," Algerian Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi told the Algerian Press Service in February.

But Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter with crude reserves of 262 billion barrels, rules the roost in shale terms as well -- up to 645 tcf.

MEED reported in October that the state oil monopoly, Aramco, "plans to fast-track the development of shale gas resources seven years ahead of its previously stated schedule following delays to some conventional projects."

This is driven in part by Riyadh's need to boost non-oil energy production to fuel power generation to keep pace with population ever-expanding demand, and concentrate on exporting oil.

Jordan, created by the British after World War I, depends on aid handouts from the oil-rich Persian Gulf states and the West to get by in a rough neighborhood.

High oil prices, an increasingly shaky economy and mounting protests against the Hashemite throne as the turmoil of the Arab Spring infects the country have thrust Jordan into a dangerous position.

"Due to its small economy, lack of import infrastructure and relative absence of domestic energy reserves, Jordan's heavy reliance on subsidized energy imports from its neighbors has left the kingdom in a precarious position," observed the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor.

High production costs, around $65 a barrel, have made extracting shale oil way too expensive for the Hashemite kingdom -- until now.

But developing the shale fields will take time and that means Jordan's going to have to rely on its benefactors for a while yet.

Amman announced May 10 it expects to produce the first barrels of shale oil on-stream by the end of the year. Most of the deposits are in central and southern regions around the Dead Sea.

Jordanian officials say Amman plans to invest $20 billion in shale oil production over the next few years, mainly through hefty investment by international companies like Royal Dutch Shell.

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