With anti-nuclear protests heating up after Japan revoked a previous anti-nuke plan, the country is desperately looking for energy alternatives. But on Oct. 3, petroleum company Japex successfully extracted crude oil from a gas field's test sample, marking the country's first discovery of domestic shale gas deposits. Now, to the chagrin of environmentalists, Japan may be the next country to dabble in the dangerous gas extraction process known as fracking.
Japex, or Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., estimated there could be as much as five million barrels of shale oil deposits in the gas field in Akita prefecture, where the test sample was taken. The company is enlisting the help of crony capitalist resource developer Halliburton Co. in the U.S. to release the oil.
This interest in fracking dates back partially to late 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas, when energy executives there with drilling company Quicksilver Resources hosted a delegation from Japan to study gas extraction and production techniques in the Barnett Shale. Mayor Betsy Price reportedly discussed the supposed economic benefits of fracking with Takashi Ishikawa, president of Japan's Ashikaga Gas Company over breakfast at a hotel.
Two months afterward, Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Yukio Edano remarked, "Shale gas in North America is most interesting to Japan. In the immediate future, shale gas is the greatest interest for us."
And in August of this year, Japex acquired a small stake in the Eagle Ford shale project near the Texas-Mexico border, its first energy investment of the sort.
With just two of Japan's nuclear reactors currently active, the negative response toward atomic energy there (not without justification) after the Fukushima disaster has forced the government to question their reliance upon it. Unfortunately, with little clean energy development in the country so far - and a corporate push for fossil fuels - Japan is attempting to address the issue, many believe, by pursuing fracking.
Natural gas and oil extraction methods like fracking can potentially cause environmental and health disasters, and has been definitely linked by scientists to tremors and earthquakes. The chemicals used in the process can also leak into and poison nearby water supplies. In a country that is still reeling from a powerful earthquake and dealing with high radiation levels from the Fukushima meltdown, many experts believe the health risks of fracking are not worth the venture.
Japanese researchers added that even without fracking, Tokyo has a 70 percent chance of enduring an earthquake of magnitude seven or higher within the next four years; that becomes a 98 percent chance within the next 30 years. A magnitude 7.3 quake, for example, might kill an estimated 5,600 people, injure 159,000, and destroy 850,000 structures, the government says.
But all signs point to a decision by Japan to move forward with fracking, and to, moreover, explore other areas outside of Akita prefecture. Fracking would allow Japan to largely cut its reliance on energy imports, especially from Russia.
Meanwhile, Shinichi Sakai, associate professor at Japan's Earthquake Research Institute, explained that the odds of a quake occurring had increased since March. "The government, individuals, and corporations should make preparations for that now," he said.
Photo: Oil storage tanks in Tokyo. Japan currently relies on oil imports, and is looking for other ways to achieve energy independence with the recent outrage directed toward nuclear energy. Itsuo Inouye/AP