Shale Gas: Where is the stink coming from?

30 May 2013
Polityka Warsaw

Protesters behind a banner at a protest against hydraulic fracturing in Bucharest, April 4, 2013
Protesters behind a banner at a protest against hydraulic fracturing in Bucharest, April 4, 2013

Poland, and Europe in its wake, will soon decide on the future of their shale gas deposits. For the technology’s opponents, this is the last moment to save the continent from disaster – or to protect their political and economic interests.

Dobrich is teeming with protest. The north-eastern Bulgarian city, with a population of some 110,000, wants shale gas prospecting in nearby Romania stopped immediately. From Dobrich to the border it is some 40km, and even more to the area where the US-based energy corporation Chevron is soon to start geological research, but these distances mean nothing to the protesters. They are fighting against energy companies perceived as destroying the historical region of Dobruja that straddles the Bulgarian-Romanian border.

The main source of controversy is an extraction method known as hydrofracturing, or fracking. Activists in Dobrich believe that injecting large amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals, including detergents, at high pressure into rock faults to extract shale gas will contaminate the whole region.

In Dobrich, where regular protests have been held for the last year and a half, they are well aware of the power of street demonstrations. It was precisely such a massive wave of protests, supported by a well-organised ecological movement, that forced the Bulgarian parliament to introduce a moratorium on fracking in January last year, making Bulgaria the second European country, after France, to ban shale gas research and extraction.

Fire in your tap

The inspiration for protests such as those in Dobrich came from the United States, where the battle over shale gas fracking has been fiercer than anywhere else. The Bulgarian anti-shale gas movement, just like its equivalents elsewhere in Europe, uses the same arguments and listens to the same prophet, the filmmaker Josh Fox. Anyone who sees his 2010 documentary, Gasland, will most likely become a sworn opponent of shale gas drilling. Fox travelled around several US states, collecting testimonies from people with chronic health problems. His research shows evidence of increased cancer rates, traceable to contamination of air, water wells, and surface waters. In one of the film’s most startling scenes, a landowner from Weld County, Colorado, is shown igniting gas from a water-well tap in his home with a cigarette lighter. Gasland caused a global hysteria and won its author an Emmy award and an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, three journalists, two from Ireland and one from Poland, set out to address what they believed was misinformation about the process of shale gas hydrofracking. Their film, FrackNation, was crowd-funded through the Kickstarter website, raising its target of $150,000 (€116,018) within just three weeks, the average donation being $60. The makers of FrackNation made it clear from the very beginning that their goal was to prove that shale gas was a safe and viable energy source. In the first place, however, they sought to verify the anti-fracking claims made by Gasland. They found numerous inconsistencies in the latter, as well as some outright untruths.

Still, FrackNation has received nowhere as much recognition as Gasland. This illustrates the fundamental difficulty of having a rational discussion about shale-gas technology: the so called ordinary people are still at a loss about whether fracking is safe or not.

Routine scepticism

Before Bulgaria’s ban on hydraulic fracturing, the government in Sofia saw nothing wrong with the technology, and interest in the country’s shale gas deposits, estimated at over 500 billion cubic metres, had been expressed by a number of corporations, mainly from the United States. If it went into use, shale gas would likely reduce Bulgaria’s dependence on energy imports from Russia, a dependence that will be deepened in the coming years by the opening of the South Stream pipeline, which runs through Bulgarian territory.

Opposition against shale gas extraction has also been fuelled by fears that its popularisation will shake up the European energy landscape. The Czech and Hungarian nuclear power industries view shale gas technology as a threat because they are developing their plants in the hope of finding new buyers for the power generated there.

In Germany, the introduction of shale gas technology could undermine the entire green-energy project, which is not only about electric power generation but also about the sale of technologies enabling the generation of energy from water, wind, sun, and biomass. If a low-cost alternative became available in Europe, including in Poland, German companies would be forced to target markets elsewhere in the world.

Similar considerations, including concerns over the impact for the country’s highly developed nuclear power sector, have motivated France, Europe’s fiercest opponent of shale gas technology. At the same time, President François Hollande believes that fracking produces unwanted results and is firmly opposed to the use of the technology.

Shale gas threatens Russian economy

Another country that has introduced a moratorium on shale gas prospecting – mainly for ecological reasons – is Lithuania. The country relies almost exclusively on imports from Russia, for which it pays 40 per cent more than Germany, hence Vilnius’s preoccupation with energy independence. Lithuania’s shale gas deposits would satisfy the country’s energy needs for a decade, and it was no accident that Günther Oettinger, the EU commissioner for energy, chose Vilnius to deliver an important message on March 10 this year: namely, that shale gas technology could be a strong bargaining card in the EU’s negotiations with Gazprom.

The Russian state monopolist is the largest producer of natural gas in the world and enjoys a near-monopolistic position in several EU countries, which is why Moscow has been trying to cool the enthusiasm for shale gas technology any way it can. While officially Gazprom does not perceive shale gas as a threat, the scale of the Russian campaign against it suggests that the technology may be actually the greatest threat the company is facing right now.

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