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Poland’s Rush to Exploit Natural Gas Reserves Unchecked by Greens

By Dave McGuire

Earlier this year, Maja and her husband Maciej were driving along the two-lane road that runs past a village called Neistkowo where they own a plot of land. It was night, so they were surprised to see an orange sky up ahead. “We saw this huge metal mast with plenty of lights on it,” Maja says. “It was actually as bright as if it was day. And we were just, ‘oh my god what’s this?’”

Photo: courtesy Earthworks Natural gas refineries like these may soon become a common sight in Poland

What they saw was the glow from a shale gas exploration rig, one of dozens that have popped up across northern Poland. It came as a complete surprise for Maja and Maciej, especially when they saw it was less than a mile away from their land. There had been no prior notification from the local government or the company.

Maja and Maciej have a young child, and they live in the northern Polish city of Słupsk. Their dream, though, is to move out to their land near Niestkowo. They want to build a home and settle into a pastoral life. Maybe raise a few horses, and watch their daughter grow. But shale gas could change all that. The drill would sit right outside their bedroom window. Now Maja is racked with doubt: “Should we go this way that we’ve planned for years and years and years? Or should we stop planning and change completely our life? We don’t know … we are just terrified.”

After doing some online research, the couple have become amateur campaigners against shale gas. Their main concern is the unknown, unintended consequences of gas extraction – on the water, on the wildlife, and on local tourism. (Shale gas is extracted by a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the rock at high pressure to force out natural gas and oil.)

But anti-drill activists like Maja and Maciej are a minority. Much of Poland is rubbing its hands with glee at the possibility of massive shale gas reserves which, if confirmed, could make it a natural gas powerhouse. (Initial reports estimate about 5.3 trillion cubic metres of shale deposits run in a 400-mile belt across the country, from the northern Baltic Sea coast to Poland’s eastern border with Belarus and Ukraine). Unlike France, which is considering a ban on fracking, Poland has no real environmental opposition.

There are many reasons why the Poles are excited about shale gas. Right now Poland relies heavily on coal, which provides about 90 percent of the country’s energy needs. But coal is increasingly viewed as a dirty fuel and European Union greenhouse gas regulations mean no one wants to invest in new, cleaner coal plants. At a time when the country is facing the possibility of rolling electricity blackouts due to power shortage, shale gas seems to offer a viable alternative.

Another big reason, according to analysts, has to do with where Poland gets gas to meet the rest of its energy needs — Russia, and its gas company, Gazprom. If Poland has an easily exploitable shale reserve, it would finally be free of influence from its neighbor to the East which whom it shares an uneasy relationship. Instead, it could possibly become a net exporter of gas. To be against shale gas, therefore, is to be against Poland. 

So where are the environmentalists?

Greenpeace Polska operates from an office on the outskirts of Warsaw, in a new building on a yet-unpaved road. Julia Michalak is their climate energy advisor. She says Greenpeace could develop a shale gas policy in the future, but frankly, Poland has bigger problems. “The biggest concern is our coal-based economy,” she says. “Coal covers more than 90 percent of Polish energy needs, and the recently adopted energy policy aims to keep coal dominant.” At best, Greenpeace considers shale gas to be a transition fuel to renewables.

Greenpeace is wise to steer clear of shale gas. In some parts of the Polish media, there is an implication that any concern about shale is actually propaganda funded by Gazprom, or the CIA. At a recent press conference, the Foreign Minister, Radosław Sikorski, was asked who could be behind so-called “black PR” against shale gas. His answer was a vague, “you try to guess.”

Michalak hears these whispers often — even from her friends. “It’s usually a laugh, and jokes that are not meant to be offensive, but are: ‘you are an ecoterrorist, you don’t want our country to develop, you want us to use candles for reading.’” But she has a rock-solid defense: “I usually say that from the top of the chimney you have a much better view than from the ground.”

If the shale gas operations come, the change will be visible from the ground, too. John Buggenhagen works for San Leon energy, one of the companies exploring shale gas in Poland. He says his industry will do what it takes to get the gas out of the ground. “I mean, don’t be fooled. We’re here because there’s money to be made. If we developed shale gas here in Poland, there will be thousands of wells going down,” he says. And that’s going to mean hundreds of trucks, roads, lights and pipelines, all through the countryside.

Protecting the natural environment from this kind of development will be an uphill battle. “There is no special environmental law concerning shale gas. In fact, I don’t see any need for that,” says Piotr Otawski, a Polish environment ministry official. The existing rules, according to Otawski, require a case-by-case analysis of any major project. If there are thousands of shale gas wells, the Polish government will have thousands of rulings to make on fracking materials, environmental impact, and effects on local communities. One can only wonder who could match all of those applications with a concerted opposition.

In Niestkowo, the people already know what they want. At a recent public meeting, and all but one of the villagers voted against any future drilling. But the vote was symbolic: all decisions lie with the Polish government. For her part, Maja is hoping help comes from a higher agency. She says she was glad to hear about the French decision against shale gas. “I hope it means there will be a ban across Europe,” she said.

Dave McGuire is a radio producer and reporter. He has worked as a staff producer with WBEZ Chicago and Radio Netherlands Worldwide, and has reported from Poland for NPR, The World, and RTE, among others. He was a Fulbright researcher to Poland and a Rotary International Peace Fellow. Many of his stories are archived at d-mcg.tumblr.com.

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