A lonely oil rig in Wejherowo. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

For three days I drove around northern Poland, trying to find a drilling rig. I had traveled to the country to report on the local shale gas boom and thought it might be a good idea to see at least one of the rigs at work. Most of my time I had spent talking to industry representatives and politicians and energy analysts and geologists and environmentalists in Warsaw, but despite the numerous interviews, it all still sounded somewhat abstract to me. I wanted to see for myself the actual operation, the drilling pad, the tower of steel rising over the land, the screeching and squealing as the drilling bit bore down several kilometers into the earth, the busy workers in overalls pouring drilling fluid (“mud”) into the borehole to lubricate the bit. In my imagination, it resembled an outsize medical procedure, like Lilliputians sticking needles with IV bags into the body of Gulliver. Or was it a giant execution by lethal injection?

In any case, since I was planning to go to the Polish countryside to talk to local farmers and mayors in prospective areas, I felt certain I’d see drilling rigs on the way. All of the shale gas wells in Poland were still at the exploratory stage, with just a couple of fracks and no actual exploitation (only two wells had been both vertically drilled and fracked, and those two had been abandoned due to poor gas flow), but maybe I could attempt to talk to one of the engineers on site. If nothing else, I wanted at least to take a few photographs of a rig for the slideshow I was putting together.

I thought it would be fairly easy to find a rig. All the newspaper accounts and industry reports I had read lauded Poland as the “leader” of shale gas development in Europe, “spearheading” exploration efforts and now on the verge of a new “energy revolution,” just like the one in the United States. “The next fracking frontier” was a typical headline. There were infrastructural and technical challenges, I knew, like the insufficient number of rigs for large-scale operations, but I didn’t think much of it. (According to the latest European Commission report, Europe has a total of 72 rigs, 11 of those in Poland, compared to about 2,000 in the United States.) If a country is a “leader” in hydrocarbon development – Poland is considered the birthplace of the kerosene lamp (1853) and has the oldest oil field in the world (1854) – you’d expect to see at least a few rigs sticking out of the land here and there.

There was a gravel pad I came across in the village of Klukowa Huta, one of the first exploration sites in Poland, but the rig had moved on a few months ago. (To hedge their financial risk, gas companies usually do vertical drillings first, analyze the samples, and only then do they proceed with horizontal drilling and/or hydraulic fracturing.) After finishing my interviews with a few of the farmers, I asked if anybody knew where the rig was. In the village of Miszewo, someone suggested, 40 kilometers to the northwest.

So I drove there, through a bucolic landscape of rolling hills and clear lakes, on narrow two-lane roads canopied by ancient oak trees, where barely two cars could pass each other. Sometimes, when the wind was right, there was a faint whiff of salt coming from the Baltic Sea, a few dozen kilometers away. The north of Poland, unlike the southwest where most of the country’s conventional gas and oil industry is based, has never seen significant industrial development and is largely untouched by the forces of modernity. Vacation homes and colorful farmhouses dot the hills haphazardly, an occasional sawmill staking its claim in a wooded patch of land. Even tractors are rare, as the soil in this region is not well suited for agriculture. Potatoes, some corn, a few cows and horses: it all looked like a place for rest and retirement, rather than the center of a booming shale gas sector. Farm animals there probably emitted far more methane than gas wells. And even if shale gas was discovered, I wondered, how could these roads support thousands and thousands of trucks full of water, fracking chemicals and flowback fluids? It would take a fortune only to fix the local infrastructure.

When I arrived in Miszewo, I found another empty pad, which looked like an abandoned parking lot. The company, BNK Petroleum, had just finished the vertical drilling a few days before and had moved the rig somewhere else. I asked two workers milling around the site if they knew any details, but they shrugged. I guess I could have easily called the company at this point to inquire about the new location of the rig (though later they didn’t answer my request for a full interview), but I was starting to enjoy my strange quest. I felt like a zoologist in search of an elusive animal species: a giant squid or an ivory-billed woodpecker or a white swallow.

The next afternoon, as I was browsing the articles from my Google Alerts (key words: “Poland shale gas”), I came across information that the state oil and gas company, PGNiG, had just started drilling an exploratory well (Opalino-2) by the town of Wejherowo. I had a window in my interview schedule the following day, so I decided to give it a try in the early morning.

It took some effort to find the place – another web of country roads and nothing to point the way – but at long last, fate smiled upon me. At the back of a water reservoir of a hydroelectric plant, I finally saw the rig tower, white and red, slowly and methodically drilling the ground in search of airy treasures, screeching and squealing, workers walking up and down the platforms, pouring drilling “mud” into the borehole. The rig was in the middle of a wide, recently plowed field, and it looked somehow lonely.

I parked in front and walked up to the guards. My translator managed to convince them to call up the project manager and a few minutes later we were in the engineer’s room, in one of the trailers, where various dynamic graphs and numbers filled the large computer screens. The project manager, of course, refused to be interviewed without prior authorization, but there was nothing much at that point I wanted to ask him (How is the drilling going? How deep do you plan to drill?). I was simply happy that I had found at least one rig in the whole of northern Poland.

It was my white swallow, one that probably wouldn’t make a summer, but was worth seeing anyway.

This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com.

Project

Shale gas is an energy phenomenon not just in a broad swath of the United States but in places like eastern Europe, too. In both regions there is a tangled mix of hopes, hype, and concern.

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