On 27 December 2014, with no prior public notice or national debate the Algerian authorities announced the drilling of the first shale gas well in Ain Salah in the south. Unprecedented huge protests broke out across Algeria, several of which took place in otherwise quieter areas of the country, from Ouargla, Ilizi, Ghardaia, Timimoun, Adrar, Bordj Badji Mokhtar, Oum El Bouaghi, Bejaia, Oran, Ain Beida, and Ain Salah, spreading all the way to the capital, Algiers, in a quick ripple effect of solidarity.
No to shale gas in Ain Salah. Image credit/Al Watan. All rights reserved.
According the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Algeria has the third-largest estimated shale gas reserves in the world. With the country's rich oil and natural gas reserves declining in recent years, Algeria authorised the exploitation of shale gas in January 2013, following an amendment to the hydrocarbon law that enables the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons.
Anti-fracking sentiment has been present amongst the Algerian population for some time, albeit small and fragmented, with protests always resulting in a few arrests and unavoidably quickly dispersed, in line with the ban on public assembly decreed in 2001 and yet to be rescinded. This is despite the fact that on 24 February 2011, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika lifted the country's 19 year-old state of emergency, which was imposed to help the Algerian authorities during the brutal conflict with Islamist rebels in the 1990s.
The size of the recent protests took the authorities by surprise. They considered most of the locations of the protests to be quiet areas of the great Algerian south, despite their important oil and gas reserves. The Algerian authorities, in their endless contempt for the Algerian people, continue to underestimate the people of the south, and to insult the intelligence of the Algerian people whose demands bid for a transparent and democratic national debate on the shale gas issue and an immediate moratorium on drilling.
This growing opposition is a real cause for concern for the Algerian authorities and for the fracking plans of multinationals such as BP, Shell, and Total. The keenness of French multinationals to frack on Algerian soil, when fracking in France was completely ruled out by France’s constitutional court citing environmental protection, helped fuel the Algerian people’s growing frustration, evident in the brandished slogans denouncing the Algerian authorities as agents of imperialism and declaring “our Sahara is not for sale”.
This speaks volumes about the feeling the Algerians have about French and British multinationals and their operations in Algeria. Health and environmental issues figure very highly amongst the protestors’ concerns, considering the contamination of the groundwater and potential radioactivity hazards that have been linked to hydraulic fracturing.
Banner reads: 'have pity on the people of Ain Saleh, the harshness of nature suffices.' Image credit/Ain Salah Sun and Power Group. All rights reserved.
News of the halt on drilling came last Wednesday in a TV interview by the Algerian Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal. He said the exploitation of shale gas was not in the order of the day; Sonatrach, the state-owned oil company, is working on mastering the techniques of shale gas exploitation; and a shale gas training centre would be created in Ain Salah.
Sellal spoke of future generations and economic benefits for all, omitting to use the words “moratorium”, “halt” or “stop”. In the usual appeasing and condescending tones, he said the operations in Ain Salah were of experimental nature, and promised there would be no drilling for the next four years.
This was not a very convincing statement for the people of Algeria, who have lost faith in their government due to deceitful declarations and continuous marginalisation by the authoritarian regime. Especially in light of the recent drop in oil prices and the Algerian rentier economy, the people know the Algerian authorities and their associate global petrogas multinationals will not give up on the shale gas option that easily.
For the people of Algeria, especially Ain Salah, feelings of frustration transformed into feelings of betrayal and duplicity as they felt the prime minister had lied on national television. Another demonstration took place on 26 January in Ain Salah, as local authorities called for the people to “go back to normal life”. The people have not been silenced nor convinced by the blatant lies and denigrations of the regime, ever faithful to its opaque and undemocratic nature regarding the nation’s affairs, and equally, to its contempt of its own people.
The increasingly precarious premise seems to transcend merely economic or environmental matters but is rooted in the social fabric of the regime, which maintains the exclusion of the people of the south and treats them like second class citizens.
There is an urgent need for the Algerian government to address the social inequality and total exclusion of the Algerian people from public decision-making and to end this socio-economic marginalisation of the people of the south and the Sahara; the fountainhead of the Algerian economy.