Shale Gas Project encounters determined Foes deep in Algerian Sahara
By CARLOTTA GALL 25 February 2015
The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/
ALGIERS — Deep in the Algerian Sahara, daily protests against a pilot hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, project are now well into their second month. The demonstrations have spread to several towns and have provided opposition parties with a new platform at an especially precarious moment for the government, as oil prices have slumped and the declining health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has removed him almost completely from public view.
Hundreds of police officers sealed off streets to block an anti-fracking march in the capital, Algiers, on Tuesday as opposition groups held rallies around the country in solidarity with the southern protesters in the distant oasis town of Ain Salah.
At first glance, Algeria might seem an unlikely place for the sort of popular movement against fracking, a method of tapping into deep deposits of shale gas, that has unfolded in many Western countries. Money from oil and gas accounts for 97 percent of exports and keeps afloat a socialist system of generous public subsidies for everything from food to housing.
In the past, the government has proved skilful at handling such popular unrest with a mixture of police repression and political and financial inducements made possible by its oil reserves. But the sharp fall in oil prices threatens to usher in a severe budget crisis and to undercut that long-tested strategy for preserving the peace and holding off demands for change.
“The winds of social change will blow from the south,” Rachid Tlemcani, a professor of history at the University of Algiers, predicted. “In the north the demands of people are housing, jobs and for their share of the oil revenues. But in the south, they are saying we don’t need shale gas, for the sake of the environment. They have a very high social conscience.”
In part because of its oil wealth, Algeria avoided the upheavals of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. The government broke up early protests, then spent generously on social programs for youth and backdated pay raises for government employees and the police.
It helped that the country’s terrifying Islamist insurgency in the 1990s left Algerians easily persuaded against the dangers of instability as they watched Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria descend into bloody confrontation.
Even so, Algeria is a country of nearly constant demonstrations — 10,000 to 12,000 a year according to Said Sadi, a senior politician from the country’s northeast — as people have learned that without them, they will get nothing from an unresponsive bureaucracy.
Citizens frequently burn tires, block roads and close off neighbourhoods to highlight their demands. Some towns, like Ouargla, are in a perpetual state of unrest, where unemployed youths throw stones at riot police officers almost daily.
Yet even in a country of perpetual protest, the anti-fracking movement, which has been entirely peaceful, is being watched with special interest by the government, opposition parties and political analysts alike.
The demonstrations were prompted by an announcement in December by the energy minister, Youcef Yousfi, that a pilot drilling project had shown that hydraulic fracturing of shale gas reserves could begin. After several weeks of protests, the government took the unusual step of sending the chief of the national police to talk to the protesters.
As the opposition mounted, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal appeared on national television to reassure the country that the government was only exploring for shale gas and not yet exploiting it. The president has addressed the issue only in an open letter on the subject.
Yet the government has so far failed to quell the demonstrations.
The protesters have tapped several important veins of popular anger. One is strong environmental concern over scarce water reserves in the desert towns; the fracking process is water intensive and, potentially, water polluting.
Lingering anticolonial resentment is also a factor. The foreign company involved in the exploration — Total — has its headquarters in France, Algeria’s former colonial master, where it has been prohibited from using the same fracking methods on environmental grounds.
Underlying the objections in the south, where the population is remotely dispersed across the vast reaches of the Sahara, is the sense that residents are ignored and marginalized and do not benefit from the rich resources mined in their region.
“We have the cow and the north has the milk” is an oft-repeated phrase in the south, Mr. Sadi said.
“The south was always the quietest part of the country,” he added. “They were seen as disciplined and submissive. The fact that the protests are starting in the south is important.”
Opposition groups are joining the cause, and a group of professors from the University of Sétif is organizing a conference on the issue for March.
The government has shown no inclination to back down. Sonatrach, the state oil and gas company, said it would soon complete the second of the exploratory wells, despite reports that the demonstrations had halted the work.
In an interview, a spokesman for the governing party, the F.L.N., said that it was necessary to explore national resources for future generations, but that exploitation of shale gas would not start until around 2020.
“From what we hear and study, there does not seem to be any particular danger from shale gas extraction,” said Said Bouhedja, a member of the party’s political bureau. “But it requires a campaign of explanation to the people.”
Exploiting its shale gas reserves has become particularly critical to the government as its budget crisis looms larger, said Geoff D. Porter, a risk consultant specializing in North Africa.
Low oil prices aside, Algeria’s crude production has reached a plateau, and fracking would increase gas production, offsetting the decline in oil revenues and lifting domestic industry, Mr. Porter said. “It’s important for domestic growth; that’s why they are so intent on it,” he added.
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Economists are warning that although Algeria has reserves to cover the immediate budget shortfall, it has a narrow opportunity of only three to four years to reform its system of government subsidies or face economic ruin.
Acknowledging the crisis last month, the prime minister, Mr. Sellal, announced a hiring freeze across much of the public sector and the postponement of several large projects, including urban tramways and highways and railroads across the country.
“We are not talking about austerity; we are talking about rationalizing spending,” he said in a national broadcast. “We are now in crisis, but Algeria has anticipated this.” The finance minister added that Algerians would now have to pay for their own medicines.
But the peacefulness and persistence of the anti-fracking movement have captured the imagination of opposition parties and other critics of the government.
“This is a citizen movement,” said Omar Belhouchet, the editor of the daily newspaper El Watan, who has reporters in the area. “It is very civilized. It is about a national resource; it touches the whole issue of power and corruption. This is citizenship affirming itself.”
Amir Jalal Zerdoumi contributed reporting.
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