Global Politics

Poles unfazed by fracking?

By Dave McGuire

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For years, Maja and Maciej have dreamed of building a house and raising their daughter near the quiet Polish village of Niestkowo. But during a recent visit to the town, they found that quiet village suddenly disrupted by a huge metal tower with bright lights on it.

"It was nighttime but it was actually as bright as if it was daytime'" Maja said. "And we were just, 'oh my god what's this?'"

It was a new test well for shale gas, the latest to pop up in the north of Poland near the Baltic Sea.

Shale gas drilling or "fracking" as it is sometimes called, is growing around the world and bringing an environmental backlash in its wake. The couple had heard about test wells coming to Poland. But they had no idea that one would be built so close to their land.

Maja said it has left her and her husband uncertain about the future.

"Now we have a question," she said. "Should we stop planning and change completely our life? We don't know. We are just terrified."

Maja did not want to give her last name because she said she was worried about drawing attention to, what she called, the big money interests involved. But her concern about shale gas puts her in the minority in Poland.

Millions of Poles already use gas for cooking and heating, but until now virtually all of it came from Russia. And after centuries of domination by their giant neighbor to the east, it is a big problem for many Poles. That is part of the reason why Polish government is pushing shale gas drilling. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, recently told an audience in Warsaw that the search for domestic energy sources must be a priority.

"We are determined to make shale gas in Poland become a reality," Tusk had said.

The prime minister didn't specifically mention Russia when talking about developing Poland's own gas supply. Few Polish politicians will, but people in the gas industry certainly do.

John Buggenhagen of San Leon Energy said Russia has not been a good supplier of gas "based upon their past history of forcing their hand on countries and governments."

Buggenhagen said tapping Poland's large shale gas reserves could end Russia's gas monopoly. And that would change the regional balance of power. The key, he said, is what's called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking technology, a practice developed in the US.

Shale gas is trapped in impermeable rock, and until recently, it was too expensive to get it out. Fracking changed that. The process uses high pressure to blast water and tiny round beads into underground rock, cracking it open and allowing the gas to seep out and be sucked up.

Fracking has made a lot of new gas available in North America. But it also has a lot of critics. A growing wave of scrutiny has dogged fracking operations in the US, including investigative reports and the 2010 documentary film Gasland, which chronicles what it says are the environmental consequences of fracking.

Critics say that among other problems, fracking can contaminate groundwater. And the backlash in the US has spread abroad, most recently to France, where the government said it might stop shale gas exploration because of environmental concerns.

In Poland, though, there has barely been a peep, even at environmental organizations like Greenpeace. Greenpeace Poland said it doesn't have a position on fracking yet. They are investigating it, though, and climate and energy campaigner Julia Michalak said if one day Greenpeace decides fracking is one of the main environmental problems in Poland, "we will definitely act."

But Michalak said that right now, Poland has more pressing energy problems, like weaning itself off of coal.

"Our biggest concern is the coal-based economy," he said.

Michalak said Poland gets more than 90 percent of its energy from coal, and that for now, Greenpeace sees shale gas as a possible transition fuel between coal and a future powered by renewable energy.

And just as there is no concerted environmental campaign against shale gas in Poland, there are also few legal obstacles.

Piotr Otawski of the Polish Environment ministry said there is no special environmental law concerning shale gas, and that the country does not need one. Otawski said Poland already requires every big new project to have an environmental impact assessment, and that like those other projects, the government will consider fracking proposals on a case by case basis.

San Leon Energy's projects will stand up to such scrutiny, said the company's John Buggenhagen. Shale gas drillers in the US reject concerns about ground water contamination, and Buggenhagen said if the water issue comes up in Poland, the industry is also ready with a response.

"You've got shallow water and deep gas," Buggenhagen said. "If the groundwater aquifer's at 200 meters or even 1000 meters, the shale gas here in Poland is between 2500 and over 4000 meters. So in my opinion there's no risk here in Poland of tainting the sweet water deposits."

Buggenhagen acknowledged that there would be big impacts on the surface. But he said San Leon will work with local communities so that both parties benefit.

Some of Maja and Maciej's future neighbors in Niestkowo are eager to see some of those benefits. One, who lives on the edge of town, said she has nothing against it because it is far from where she lives.

"And maybe there will be jobs," she said.

But Niestkowo Mayor Bogdan Zabinski doubted that his village would see any benefit. And he feared the potential costs.

"Just look what has happened in Japan with their nuclear power," Zabinski said. "It was supposed to be incredibly safe, but it turned out that it isn't. And the same can be said for shale gas. We've been told it is okay, but there's no guarantee that our environment won't be harmed."

For now, gas companies in Poland are only drilling test wells. Any actual production could still be years away–plenty of time for the debate over fracking to play out around the world, and in Poland.

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    (Photo courtesy: Plazak/US Energy Information Administration)

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    (Photo courtesy: Energy Information Administration)