Before shale gas the In Salah gas joint venture was already one of the largest dry gas joint-venture projects in the country.
The first phase of development by BP started in July 2004, developing the largest three fields. The second stage, the In Salah Southern Fields project, came on line in February 2016, to maintain plateau production by developing the remaining four field (1).
Sonatrach’s first two vertical shale exploratory wells drilled in 2012 confirmed the potential for shale gas. Since 2014, Sonatrach has been engaged in a pilot project in the shale gas rich Ahnet basin to drill, hydraulically fracture, and analyse three horizontal wells with up to 14 hydraulic fracturing stages.
Already in December 2009, Total won a tender to acquire a 49% interest in the ‘Ahnet exploration and exploitation license’, with the greater part going to the Algerian company Sonatrach. Total expected drilling to begin in 2015, for an estimated 700 million barrels of oil (3).
A new hydrocarbons law enacted in 2013 made it legal to exploit shale gas in Algeria. Thus, the country commenced its shale programme in 2013 in Ain Salah, following an accord with French President Francois Hollande in December 2012. The accord gave France and its companies to explore shale gas in the country.
In December 2013, Algeria’s National Oil Corporation announced its intentions to bolster the economy by allowing overseas corporations to commence fracking operations.
As a desert oasis, Ain Salah relies on a sensitive aquifer system stretching from Southern Algeria to Tunisia and Libya, and overlapping with at least four intensive shale gas fields (2). Evidence was released exposing harmful pollution and contaminated water supplies, causing an uproar.. The threat of groundwater pollution from fracking is the greatest concern for local inhabitants, whose main source of income is derived from agriculture.
Drilling of the first pilot shale wells in Ain Salah began in December 2014. From the start of 2015, huge protests erupted, some sustained for more than five months, despite facing repressive (inc. pre-emptive arrests) and co-opting measures from the Algerian government. There were violent confrontations between police and up to 40,000 protestors (3).
In January 2015, as the protests spread to Algiers, Total announced it would no longer be partaking in the Ahnet concession.
On February 3rd 2015, local residents visited the drilling site and posted photos and videos on social media revealing the absence of facilities to treat water and drilling mud, contrary to official statements. They revealed the presence of chemicals such as Ezeflo110, sitting on pallets, rather than being stored securely, thereby proving Sonatrach’s inability to handle waste management and storage of lethal chemicals (4).
Protesters demanded the halt of all operations of exploration for shale gas. An official request for a moratorium on shale gas was sent to President Bouteflika on February 21st 2015, co-signed by Algerian experts, asking for a national debate around the issue. In January 2016, the government announced it would halt exploitation due to very low oil prices (4).