Major technological inventions occur in extracting gas from unconventional sources. Nowadays natural gas is the new gold. Substantial amounts of natural gas are ready to be extracted from sedimentary rocks, so called shales. According to Forbes, the US could become the world’s largest producer of fracked energy by 2017. This energy revolution could be the solution for European countries like Poland, Estonia and Romania, which would free themselves from Russia’s gas politics. Shale gas is not only available in the US but is also present in China, Europe, and North Africa. Consequently this renaissance could have a spill-over effect to other parts of the world.
Estonia is a pioneer in this energy revolution who has benefited of the positive effects. The so called “Baltic Tiger” is the first country in the world to reach energy independence due to shale energy. The Estonians do no longer depend on Russian energy. Neither are they victims of high energy prices, embargoes or other Russian power games. This is something what their neighbours are dreaming of. For instance, Lithuania pays Russia a 40 percent higher energy price than any other European country. Shale gas could be the panacea. Or is this only a utopia?
Let us first look at the case of the United States, another country with a long standing experience in fracking on a large scale.
More than a decade ago, shale gas was unreachable. It was simply too expensive to drill for. Nevertheless, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a new drilling method, caused an American energy “renaissance”. Why is it called a renaissance there?
First of all natural gas is a clean energy source. It could contribute to the struggle against global warming. Also, it is believed that the United states has enough gas resources to meet its own domestic demand, which could lead to independence in terms of energy in the near future. Besides, the labour market profited. During the Obama government, 2,1 million new jobs were created in the energy sector.
So far so good, a durable energy solution whiteout destroying what we like, one would think. But is there a downside on injecting a combination of at least 596 chemicals and water into the soil, causing a mini earthquake, in order to crack the shale and free the gas? Most of these chemicals are unknown for the larger public, since the combination is kept secret. Moreover the area which is needed to frack can be compared with a crater with a 10 km diameter. It is nearly impossible to frack in densely populated areas.
In order to start fracking on a large scale, the US Energy Bill of 2005 demanded an amendment of the safe Drinkwater law and other environmental laws, making it possible to inject chemicals into the soil near Drinkwater reservoirs. In other words it enabled the pollution of drink water and severe environmental damage. The chemicals enter small creeks, bigger rivers and eventually sea water. In several states, this ruined agricultural soil, poisoned tap water and seriously harmed fauna. Cases were reported in which tap water was inflammable. Why this bill passed is still unknown. What we do know is that before the bill passed, Dick Cheney was CEO of a company that promoted unconventional resources called Halliburton. It was one of the biggest stakeholders in the field of shale gas. During Cheney’s vice-presidency, Halliburton successfully lobbied for this amendment.
Not only the environment suffered. According to Theo Colborn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, living in an area where fracking occurs could have major impact on one’s health. One’s neurosystem can be seriously damaged. Other effects would be dizziness, swollen arms and legs, feeling of sickness and unbearable pain.
These negative side effects could be the reason to make us more hesitant to believe shale gas is the solution to our problems. This is exactly why France and Germany prohibited the extraction of shale gas. These countries considered the environmental and health risks that coincide with fracking simply too dangerous. Similarly, Bulgaria banned exploratory drilling for shale gas by Chevron after mass demonstrations. In Poland, home to the allegedly largest deposit of shale gas, ExxonMobile and other multinationals abandoned their projects due to environmental investigations.
Nonetheless the situation is complex in Eastern Europe. Imagine yourself the environmental damage of fracking in countries where the rule of law is not that powerful as in the US. In these countries, environmental standards are not respected, as was witnessed during the cyanide spill-over in Baia Mare, Romania, in 2000. It was Europe´s largest environmental disaster since Chernobyl.
In Romania, the situation seems quite Orwellian. The American company of Chevron recently started the extraction of shale gas without the consent of the locals in Pungești, a village in eastern Romania.
It was early December when villagers peacefully protested against fracking near their farms. They were aware of the environmental risks and feared the consequences for their crops and animals. They defended their land, their only source of income, which in case of damage would not be compensated by the Romanian government or Chevron. Even though these demonstrations were peaceful, the riot police intervened violently, by beating up and arresting the villagers. The village was declared a “zone of special security”.
Why were the villagers so upset? According to the Romanian Petroleum law 238/2004, Chevron’s activities would not be legal. Also the council of Pungești unanimously decided in October to ban shale gas activities in their area. Nevertheless, both decisions seemed irrelevant to the stake holders. The government did not block Chevron’s activities. On the contrary, it donated an additional amount of 870,000 hectares of land to Chevron. In the meantime, main-stream media displayed the protesting villagers as puppets serving Russian interests. In a country that is still feeling the legacy of communism, being pro-Russian is evidently not commonly accepted. The influence of the mass-media contributed to the polarization on this issue. In any case, the extraction of shale gas, backed by police aggression, is continuing in Romania.
Unconventional energy can be a step towards cleaner energy. But one step forward in a certain field can lead to two steps back in another field. Before adopting shale gas as a panacea for our energy problems, better investigation is required on the adverse effects of fracking – without using Europe’s densely populated backyard as a test lab.