After miles and miles of rain, fog, and darkness, the woods ahead of my rental car glowed eerily through the windshield. I hoped it was the village of Strzeszewo, Poland, and the inn where I would overnight after the long drive from Warsaw. But as I rounded the curve, a towering rig, taller than the surrounding trees, and enclosed in a fenced compound, came into focus. My curiosity started to build a bit, the way it usually does, the first time I encounter the subject matter of a new story.
I was in Poland as part of a joint reporting project with Bulgarian journalist Dimiter Kenarov. It was Dimiter’s idea to look at how shale gas exploration, and the controversial extraction process of hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—was being received in Europe.
Hydraulic fracturing was developed in the United States. The process involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture the shale rock and release the gas.
Fracking is credited with sparking a U.S. energy boom, creating jobs and lowering energy prices. The process has also raised questions about water contamination that are under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, drilling operators across the U.S. have paid millions of dollars in fines due to blowouts and spills at drilling sites.
Since 2010 the U.S. State Department has quietly promoted the export of hydraulic fracturing technologies to foreign countries like Poland. The reception in Europe has been mixed, as environmentalists and energy companies have squared off over the fracking issue.
France and Bulgaria recently imposed a moratorium on fracking, citing safety concerns, but Poland, with the promise of some of the largest shale deposits in Europe, has eased restrictions for some 30 drilling operators.
Poland is eager to emulate the U.S. shale gas energy boom, with hopes of reducing its heavy dependence on coal for electricity, as well as cut its reliance of Russian natural gas.
During my trip to Poland, I visited and interviewed residents in several communities where shale-gas exploration has already started. So far, the drilling operators, and the Polish national gas company, called PGNIG, have met stiff resistance, and even suspicion, from local residents who feel they have been left out of the decisions that could impact their way of life.
One reason for the resistance could be the fact that the Polish state owns everything 50cm and more below the surface. This differs from the U.S., where private landowners may own mineral rights below their land and can sell or lease to rights to the highest bidder. This leaves many residents feeling they must assume all the risks of industrial accidents in their backyard, with nothing to gain.
I met a farmer who was told the shale rock thousands of feet beneath his 300 year old farm was going to be explored. He was certified by the European Union as an organic farmer and he wondered how shale gas drilling could be permitted under an organic farm. In Pomerania, another farmer told me that he had to get permits and undergo a community review before expanding his hog farm. He was irate that a drilling operator was allowed to drill near his farm without approval from local residents. His biggest concern was a blowout or spill, or some industrial accident, that would threaten his farm and his ability to make his monthly bank loan payments. A local mayor I interviewed told me that the massive seismic exploration trucks had destroyed the local roads. And when they repaired the roads, he said, they left the roads in horrible shape. Still other residents, told of organizing meetings to better understand the process of fracking, found that the drilling operators sent undercover informants to the meeting who later reported to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claiming the residents “posed a threat to Poland’s energy security.”
To quell this dissent, drilling operators and the Polish government are ramping up efforts to win the hearts and minds of citizens. There have been town hall meetings to educate residents about the safety of the fracking process. The government is also using the media and advertising to promote a vision for the future, where shale gas revenues fill state and local coffers and Polish consumers have lower energy bills. Another selling point, one that nearly all Poles support, is that shale gas will reduce reliance on Russian gas, which is seen as a threat to Poland’s energy security.
Of course the biggest factor in determining whether a shale gas boom will take off in Poland has to do with how much shale gas is underground, and if it is economically viable for the energy companies to extract that gas. For now, the jury is still out as to how much gas is trapped in shale rock under Poland. Based on the interviews I did with local residents, I believe that even if large quantities of shale gas are discovered under Polish soil, the government and gas drillers will continue to face the challenge of how to pursue valuable energy, deep in the earth, without at the same time fueling dissent above ground.
This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com.