Written by Steven Lee Myers
The first earthquake struck this small farming village in Sichuan province before dawn on Feb. 24. There were two more the next day.
Sichuan is naturally prone to earthquakes, including a major one in 2008 that killed nearly 70,000 people, but to the rattled villagers of Gaoshan, the cause of these tremors was human-made.
“The drilling,” Yu Zhenghua said as she tearfully surveyed her damaged home, still officially uninhabitable five days later.
The drilling Yu referred to was hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technology, which has revolutionized the production of natural gas and oil in the United States, has created a boom in China, too, and with it many of the controversies that have dogged the practice elsewhere.
In the hours after the quakes, thousands of residents converged outside the main government building in Rong County to protest widespread fracking in the rolling hills and valleys here now yellowing with the flowering of rapeseed.
The protesters jostled with security guards along a sliding metal gate and dispersed only after officials announced they had suspended fracking operations of a regional subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp., the country’s largest oil and gas producer.
China, like the United States and other countries, has embraced the fracking revolution in hopes of weaning itself from its dependence on foreign energy sources. But the public fury that unexpectedly boiled over in Gaoshan underscores the social and environmental challenges the country must overcome — even in a tightly controlled political system.
“Sichuan is a major earthquake zone, so there is clearly a risk,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a geologist with the Energy Studies Institute of the National University of Singapore. He added that the government should conduct a thorough and transparent study of causes of the temblors in order to reassure those who live nearby.
The three earthquakes killed two people and wounded 13. More than 20,000 homes in three villages suffered damage and nine collapsed completely, according to a statement by the county. About 1,600 people were displaced, forced to move in with relatives or to live temporarily in 470 blue tents distributed by authorities.
The suspension of operations — which remains in effect — stilled 15 sites in the area affected by the quakes, pending a survey by officials from Sichuan province, according to an official for the Rong County government, Huang Jing.
It has not affected fracking operations elsewhere in the region, a center of the fracking boom. China National Petroleum alone has invested $4 billion in fracking shale gas in the Sichuan Basin over the last decade, Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported last November.
China National Petroleum declined to comment on the issue. The nation’s other major oil and gas producer, Sinopec, which also operates in the province, also declined to comment.
The website for the regional subsidiary of China National Petroleum, however, later shared a blog post suggesting that the suspension in Rong County was unnecessary. Compared to the loss of economic development, the post said, seismic activity caused by drilling for shale gas was “the lesser of two evils.”
For many residents of the area, that choice is far from clear.
Wu Shirong was in the shower when the second quake struck on Feb. 25. “This was the scariest one,” he said, though by magnitude the one that followed 4 1/2 hours later was the strongest of the three, measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale, according to China’s geological service.
Cracks spread across the ceiling of his house, which was declared unsafe. He is now living in one of the tents with his in-laws in the driveway outside. “Where can I sleep if I don’t sleep here?” he said.
Yu’s house appeared more badly damaged. The retaining wall that holds up her property along a steep hillside buckled and seemed on the verge of collapse. Deep cracks gouged the stuccoed brick walls of the two-story house her son built with his earnings. Her son and daughter-in-law, like many Chinese, moved to a city in the southern region of Guangxi for work.
“My house was built only 12 years ago,” she said, “and now it is like this.”
The local authorities have promised to repair the damage. They have not acknowledged any link between the tremors and fracking, which involves injecting chemicals and sand at high pressure into wells drilled in shale formations to break up the rock and release gas and oil.
“The relationship between earthquakes and local industrial exploitation cannot be determined,” the county government wrote on its website.
In China, as in other countries, the link remains the subject of debate.
Supporters of the technology claim there is no direct connection, though studies have shown otherwise. Fracking and related activity increases pressure underground, which can cause existing faults to slip.
Fracking has nonetheless vastly expanded the natural resources that can be recovered underground, making the technology irresistible to China, which is highly dependent on energy imports, as the United States once was.
China sits on top of the largest technically recoverable reserves of shale gas in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the government has set ambitious goals for expanding production in the years ahead.
There are many reasons. In addition to energy independence, the increased use of natural gas could help China meet its international commitments to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change. The transition to gas has already helped reduce pollution — at least in the northeast, where authorities have phased out the use of coal to heat homes.
China’s hopes to replicate the U.S. fracking boom, however, have hit significant stumbling blocks. Shale deposits tend to be deeper here — 3.5 kilometers in Rong County, or more than 2 miles down. That makes them more expensive to tap. The process also requires a lot of water, which is scarce in some regions.
Perhaps most importantly, China is much more densely populated, and many of its best shale deposits are in crowded places. Those include Sichuan, which has a population of more than 80 million. Since reserves were discovered there in 2009, scores of fracking sites have appeared — with virtually no public input, given the authoritarian nature of the government.
The 15 platforms in Rong County have 39 separate wells being drilled or already in operation. They have appeared within a 10-kilometer circle around the county’s main town, surrounded by fencing and filled with trucks and equipment.
Because of the heavy equipment involved, the roads to the sites are rutted and, when it rains, nearly impassable because of mud. Long black tubes extend across once scenic valleys and terraced fields. As in other places, Rong County residents say they noticed an increase in tremors and quakes after production began.
The latest appeared to inflame discontent that had long been simmering.
A video of the protest outside the government building was first published by Radio Free Asia. Local residents also voiced complaints on Weibo, a social media site like Twitter. “What on earth do you want from us?” one woman wrote. “Will you take the matter seriously only when there’s loss of life?”