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Water Shortages Will Limit Global Shale Gas Development, Especially in China

Shale drilling in China's Sichuan Province
Shale drilling in China's Sichuan ProvincePhotograph by Corbis

If all the world’s theoretically recoverable shale gas could be developed, our supply of clean-burning natural gas would expand 47 percent—lowering both greenhouse gas emissions and energy prices, according to estimates from the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

The hitch is that the process for extracting shale gas, called hydraulic fracking, sucks up as much as 25 million liters (6.6 million gallons) of water for each well. A report from WRI (PDF), “Global Shale Gas Development: Water Availability and Business Risks,” released on Tuesday, shows that roughly 38 percent of the world’s shale gas and oil lies buried beneath water-stressed regions. This means that extraction efforts will be difficult and expensive, as well as economically and environmentally risky.