Wojciech Swieton has travelled all over the world as a drilling engineer.
He started his search for natural gas in his native Poland, then moved to Germany, then on to India and then spent five years building gas drilling rigs in the Libyan desert.
The father of two is now back in Poland. His home country has a ravenous appetite for so-called “unconventional gas” hidden deep inside underground shale, but to extract it, a highly complicated and controversial method is used, fracking.
Poland has perhaps one of the largest shale gas reserves of Europe and Wojciech is involved in setting up a new drilling rig in the small southern Polish town of Syczyn, he says:
“It is a good time for us at the moment, because shale gas is more popular than before and I hope we keep going.”
Three kilometres underground, several horizontal pipes have been laid. In spring, massive amounts of water and chemicals will be injected under high pressure into the shale to liberate the gas from the rocks.
Poland is motivated by two major energy concerns: Firstly that for now most energy in the country is produced by burning coal and secondly that the country is, for now, dependent on oil and gas imports from Russia.
The villagers in Syczyn are largely in favour of fracking. The region is poor and many have high hopes that the shale gas industry will boost the local economy, although all around the village, rumours run wild.
Zbigniew Krezel, Syczyn resident:
“People say different things: ‘The water will turn yellow’… ‘The hens will lay no more eggs’… but I don’t know if this is true or not.”
Czeslawa Kulbaka, Syczyn resident:
“There will be irreversible changes underground because this technique will create fractures. The concrete surrounding the pipes won’t last forever so the local water supply will be contaminated.”
Jozef Siwek, Syczyn resident:
“We like the fact that we have found gas here in Syczyn. Maybe more jobs will be created for our children.”
Alicja Struszewska, Syczyn resident:
“Most people in the village are in favour of exploiting the shale gas. The village and the community have said yes.”
Karol Kaszczuk, Syczyn resident:
“They say that no chemicals will be used. Yet we know that the shale gas is extracted by injecting chemicals and can be dangerous for the environment.”
Another issue is that many of the shale gas resources sit in or close to protected nature reserves. Large-scale fracking requires a huge logistical operation. As well as putting substances into the ground, companies also have to treat heavily polluted water which flows back out of the wells.
Magdalena Piatkowska, the Operations Manager of a drilling company explains how they plan to minimise the environmental impact:
“Our well is designed in a way which protects underground water against any possible pollution from drilling fluid or in the future against gas which could migrate to the surface. Each casing set is cemented to the surface and I can promise that there is no possibility that gas or drilling fluid reach a point where there is a contact with underground water.”
There are shale gas deposits all over Europe. In the United Kingdom a temporary halt on the process was put in place after earthquakes were felt near a fracking site. Although the government announced on October 30, 2012 that it could soon launch a new round of licensing for shale gas exploration.
In France the process has been halted all together. A gas drilling company had wanted to exploit the resources in the picturesque Ardèche region but they were stopped by campaigner Chritophe Tourre.
The Frenchman set up one of the most efficient NGO networks in France: the famous “Collective 07 – Stop au gas de schiste”. He explains why he was so against the idea.
“Whatever fracturing technique is used, it will inevitably perforate a geological layer called the toarcian layer in which there is shale gas. This layer is thought of by scientists as a trash layer full of harmful products such as heavy metals and radioactivity.
“Fracturing this layer will inevitably put these toxic chemicals in contact with the groundwater that sits just above them.”
The French anti-shale-gas campaigners put us in contact with Marta, in Warsaw. She is trying to coordinate some of the polish anti-shale-gas campaigners. She says the government is not telling the truth about the process:
“It is over 700 chemicals that are used, half of them carcinogenic. In the information they give they show a little rock playing with shampoo, salt, soap and they are saying it is just the same chemicals you use to bake a cake. And this is a government pamphlet. It is propaganda! The polish government is functioning as a propaganda machine right now.”
Polish and French activists, both argue that investment in renewable energy would create more sustainable workplaces than shale gas exploitation.
Ardèche-based chestnut-farmer Jean-Francois Lalfert is part of the multinational anti-shale-gas network. He says the technique is deadly:
“There are already cases of cancer, there are already cases of poisoning. It’s been seen in the United States, it’s been seen in Canada, in Germany, in Poland, it’s been seen wherever shale gas has been extracted from the bedrock. Hydrocarbons which are extracted from the bedrock. All around there is damage to health. It’s not worth digging these wells if you’re going to make people sick.”
The shale gas debate splits Europe: Some countries are enthusiastic about the technique while others are fearful.
In Warsaw at the Environment Ministry we meet Poland’s chief geologist, Piotr Grzegorz Wozniak. The Junior Minister in charge of Polish shale gas exploitation is keen to get more energy from home soil:
“The gas import prices from Gazprom, that’s the only exporter from Russia, are at least twice as high as the spotprice today. Twice! – We need to change our energy mix and stay apart a bit, step by step, from coal, and with our dependence on imports of natural gas which is absolutely intolerable given the supplier which is absolutely unreliable and you can never know when you have gas or when you don’t have, we need to rely on something else.”
But there is still another problem, methane. The highly potent greenhouse gas is emitted by fracking rigs. That is why at the Marie-Curie University in Lublin, Poland, researchers are working hard to find a way to capture it, as Geology professor Marian Harasimiuk explains:
“At our university, in cooperation with some other institutes, we do pioneering research for the Polish Fund for Nature and the Environment. Through our work we will soon be able to capture and chemically neutralise all methane gas emissions coming from boreholes on an industrial scale.”
It is up to each EU member State how it makes its energy. But the European Union can intervene when it comes to environmental issues. It is still being decided if EU-wide shale gas regulations are needed, and how far they should go.