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Controversial drilling practice finds acceptance in Poland

February 14, 2012

According to an estimate from the United States Energy Information Administration, Poland is sitting on 5.3 trillion cubic meters worth of untapped deposits of natural gas—enough to satisfy the country’s domestic needs for over 300 years. However, these shale gas deposits can only be accessed via the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which has already been banned in France and Bulgaria. Despite the concerns of its fellow EU member states, Poland has already granted over a hundred permits for test drilling, many to large foreign firms such as ExxonMobil and Chevron.

The eagerness to develop these resources is not surprising—Poland is dependent on Russia for two-thirds of its own natural gas consumption. Another major impetus for Poland was last year’s completion and inauguration of the Nord Stream pipeline. Nord Stream—a joint venture between Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom and several prominent energy companies in Germany, France and the Netherlands— travels under the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany with the capability to transmit 55 bcm of natural gas per year. Previously, Russian gas had to travel through pre-existing Soviet-era pipeline networks to get to the EU, and Poland was a major transmission corridor. Nord Stream has the capabilities to allow Russia to circumvent natural gas transmission through Poland without losing its grip on the Polish market.

If the Polish gas industry reaches its potential, the establishment of productive sources of natural gas in Poland would almost certainly give the nation the energy independence and security it currently lacks, not to mention the significant economic benefits that might come from exports. The EU, whose own reliance on Russian gas has been underscored by the recent cold snap, could garner benefits as well. However, this is all entirely dependent on the continuation and success of the fracking.

Fracking is currently a hot-button issue in the United States, the country the practice has benefited the most. Concerns over groundwater pollution and even earthquakes, alleged fracking side effects, have led to the development of significant opposition movements over the past several years. A recent European Commission investigation determined that regulations on shale gas extraction were unnecessary at the EU level, but a street protest of a few hundred people in Sofia was enough to get the Bulgarian Parliament to ban the practice within a week in mid-January. In Poland, where fracking only began last year, the public may not yet be entirely aware of the potential risks and any opposition is still in its nascent stages. Yet despite the public outcry fracking may ultimately cause in Poland, the exuberance of Polish officials over shale gas—Foreign Affairs Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has already declared Poland the site of “the gold rush of the 21st century”—suggests that a few public protests alone may not dissuade them.

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