Published December 31, 2012
This article was also published by Natural Gas Europe.
Black rain is falling on the black, parched earth. The storm clouds hang large and heavy as stones. A lonely spigot sticks out of the ground, dripping black water into a skeletal palm. Filled with toxic waste, a coffin floats up in the air. And there, in the middle of the scene, is the stunted drilling rig: the source of all evil. Its flare burns brightly, a flame both beautiful and devastating.
This is how Edward Sawicki imagines the end of the world, as painted on a mural on the outer wall of his barn. It is his personal Apocalypse, as terrifying as that in any religious vision. There are no supernatural forces at work, no fire and brimstone, no horsemen clattering across wastelands of human bones and skulls. Sawicki’s worst nightmare is rather prosaic: he fears that the extraction of shale gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing--or fracking--would contaminate his water wells.
Sawicki is a farmer in the hamlet of Ogonki, in the Pomerania region of northern Poland, in the Kartuzy district, about 50 kilometers west of the city of Gdansk, but if you ask him where he lives he would simply say “Kashubia.” A linguistic enclave within Poland, tucked among a fairytale landscape of green rolling hills and limpid-blue lakes, Kashubia has no special administrative status, but it prides itself on a spirit of independence and cultural autonomy. Kashubian is generally considered a regional dialect of Polish, but nearly every word is pronounced and written differently. Road signage in the area bears both Polish and alternative Kashubian spelling. The black-and-yellow Kashubian flag, a pirate twin of the white-and-red flag of Poland, flies from poles and ledges. The sophisticated residents of Warsaw like to joke that Kashubians are hicks, the country bumpkins of the north, but they don’t really know whom they are against. This is not Poland. This is Kashubia.
Sawicki is 38, with clear blue eyes, blond stubble, and blond eyelashes, his blond hair closely cropped, camouflaging a receding hairline. He wears a blue t-shirt and blue jeans, unlaced muddy boots on his feet. A small earring flashes on his left ear – more a buccaneer than a farmer. Still single, he lives on the family farm with his old mother. The farming operation is small: he has just 10 cows, a tractor, a few sheds, and a grain silo, but he recently received an EU organic-farm certificate, hoping to develop a sustainable business.
But then, 16 months ago he found out that his property is slated for shale gas exploration, as part of the greater push by Warsaw to exploit the country’s mineral resources. Shale gas, politicians said every day on TV, on the radio, in newspapers, would revive the Polish economy and create new jobs. It would bring down the price of energy. Most importantly, it would finally make Poland energy independent from its legendary nemesis, Russia.
Representatives of the state-owned seismic company Geofizyka came to the area and started visiting families, asking for permission to conduct geological studies on the land. They wanted to update the geological map of Poland, they said. Seeing no harm in the operation, many of the farmers agreed, but Sawicki stood firm and would not allow the use of his private road.
The visits grew more regular, as representatives from the California-based oil-and-gas company that owned the local concession, BNK Petroleum, joined in the public-relations campaign. The extraction of shale gas, they told Sawicki, would not hurt his land and water. They gave him all kinds of leaflets and brochures, whole packets of materials attesting that the only chemicals used in the fracking process would be simple household substances like detergents. At one point, he was told that one of the additives is citric acid, “just like lemon juice.”
“I imagine them sitting at the rig with a juice extractor and pouring lemon juice,” Sawicki says with a smile. “I guess the chemicals are so harmless that in case of water contamination we will have lemon-flavored water.”
Sawicki started reading and became a self-made expert in the field, a shale-gas autodidact. He has since learned about cases of water pollution in the United States from faulty casing and cementing; he knows about air pollution coming from compressor stations; he knows about the difficulty of recycling the flow-back water coming out of the well during production, laced with salts, heavy metals, and even radioactivity. Soon, Sawicki started to see shale gas not as a benefit but as a long list of hazards: somebody was going to barge onto his property with heavy trucks and equipment, drill a bunch of five-kilometer holes into the ground, then drill a greater bunch of horizontal holes, each one more than a kilometer long, then inject millions of liters of water, sand, and toxic chemicals under enormous pressure, blast fissures into the hard shale rock underneath, suck out the trapped gas, and, finally, in a couple of years, leave behind shattered landscapes, plastic pits for flow-back, and possibly contaminated drinking wells. And for all that, for the destruction of his known world, he was not going to receive even a whiff of compensation, since mineral rights in Poland belong not to individuals, but to the almighty state.
Simply put, for Sawicki, fracking started to look like the very opposite of independence. It was a blatant invasion of his native land by multinational companies on the one side and the government of Poland on the other. It was a form of partition. It was an act of war.
He felt ready. After all, it was valor on the battlefield that had won his family the very same land four centuries ago, when a local duchess made them gentry and granted them 400 hectares in gratitude for their loyalty and service. The farm had somehow survived all the madness of Polish history, the fire of wars and the ice of revolutions, the Prussians and the Russians, the Nazis and the Communists, and though Sawicki’s holdings were now only 60 hectares, 30 of pasture and 30 of forest, he was bent on defending them, whatever the cost.
Together with some of the neighboring farmers and house-owners, he started planning. Visiting artists came and helped to paint the apocalyptic mural on the back of Sawicki’s barn. Several protests were organized, most of them with just a few people, though others were bigger. Last March, about 200 locals showed up at a rally in the nearby village of Klukowa Huta, where a well was being drilled.
Then, after an impromptu blockade of the seismic trucks that had come to his area, Sawicki claims he started receiving anonymous messages on his cellphone, some of them containing death threats. “Go save flamingoes and orcas,” another message read. And even though he had explicitly refused to have seismic testing done on his property, he soon found an official document, where, in place of his personal signature, somebody had just written “oral consent,” giving a go-ahead to the operation.
“Nothing has changed in Poland since communism in terms of human rights and attitude towards common people,” he says, downcast. “People have no impact. They might have maybe a bit more money, things are a bit more colorful, but it’s the same political system and there is the same disregard for people.”
The fighting spirit of Edward Sawicki seems to be breaking these days. After a year of campaigning, he feels tired. Few pay him any attention now and even some of his neighbors have stopped supporting him. They think shale gas development is doomed to happen, whether they like it or not. What’s the point of opposing the inevitable?
“Farmers are busy and they can’t get that much involved, so they’re losing their impetus to fight shale gas. If we don’t get outside help, the protests will die out. Everybody is intimidated by different factors: the government, the media, the company.”
But Sawicki would not give up, though his presence may seem invisible to some. Perhaps that’s the point.
“I am a simple man and my philosophy is to leave the slightest trace possible on this earth.”
This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com.