Polish minister denies shale gas exodus by US firms

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EXCLUSIVE / Widespread reports that two US energy giants are planning to end their shale gas fracking operations in Poland are false and spread by “gossips,” the country’s deputy environment minister has told EURACTIV.

Marathon Oil and Talisman have recently declared plans to withdraw from Poland, as ExxonMobil did last year, over doubts about the true potential of its shale gas fields.

But Piotr Wo?niak, Poland’s deputy environment minister, said that as far as he was concerned, Marathon and Exxon were still invested in Polish shale.

“You’ve heard [the] gossips about Marathon leaving Poland?” he told EURACTIV. “I’ve heard these gossips too. But we are a licensing office and as long as we don’t have any filed requests from a company, we don’t regard them as leaving the concession.”

“Marathon which has 11 concessions didn’t file anything with us,” he underlined.

No Marathon officials could be contacted but in May, the oil firm issued a statement saying that they would leave Poland next year due to “unsuccessful attempts to find commercial levels of hydrocarbons.”

A recent report by the US Energy Information Administration lowered its estimate of Poland’s shale reserves from 187 to 148 trillion cubic feet.

Warsaw disputes this. “We disregard foreign estimates,” said Wo?niak, who is a former economy minister. “We have our own which is done by the Polish Geological survey and we stick to this, as do the investors – or possibly not, if they don’t wish to.”

Wo?niak said that ExxonMobil had not completely rid itself of Polish shale concessions either. “Exxon had six licences; Now they have one concession in south east Poland, together with Total. They do their job.”

The US major had bought all six of its licences in a ‘second hand package,’ he said and three of these were “probably not productive.”

While Talisman had relinquished its licences, “as long as the [other] concessions and commitments are fulfilled, we are in business,” he added.  

Environmental regulation

At least one US fossil fuels company, Chevron, still expects to be operating six wells in Poland by the end of the year. But their plans have been it hit by local protests, including an occupation of land fenced off for a drill site in the village of ?urawlów last month.   

As obstacles for Poland’s shale gas industry have mounted, so have concerns that other firms could leave if taxation and drilling laws are not relaxed.

The country has already lightened environmental regulations and postponed tax collection to make itself more appealing to potential shale investors.

Warsaw is trying to broaden its energy holdings to weaken a dependence on Russian gas, and has strongly lobbied against European regulations on shale gas exploration and production.

“Everything depends on two factors,” said Przemys?aw Ruchlicki, a legal and economic affairs expert at the Polish Chambers of Commerce. “Do we have shale gas and how much? And what will be [the] EU legislation concerning shale gas drilling?”

Environmental questions

Shale gas holds huge promises in terms of energy independence and has contributed to a manufacturing revival in the United States.

For a country like Poland, which relies heavily on coal for its electricity, it could also help reduce carbon dioxide emissions and contribute to meeting CO2 reduction targets defined at the European level.

The environmental risks, however, appear just as huge as the economic promises. 

Scientists at the EU's environment directorate say that shale gas exploration and production contains a ‘high risk’ to human health and the environment, because of the threats of groundwater pollution, the degradation of biodiversity, land, air quality, and seismic conditions.

In Brussels, the European Commission is yet to decide what legislative path – if any – to pursue on the issue. 

In a sign of the battles to come, Antoine Simon, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth told EURACTIV: “We expect the European Commission to also take Poland to court over the European Water Framework Directive which it has been constantly violating and which could lead to serious cases of drinking water contamination due to shale gas production.” 

Shale gas is an 'unconventional' fossil fuel that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. Until recently, no method of safely transporting it to the surface existed.

It is mined via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, the process of breaking apart layers of shale by pumping liquids and a number of chemical additives under high pressure thereby releasing trapped gas reserves.

To proponents, shale gas represents an untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. At the moment the continent depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in recent years.

In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.

  • 2013: European Commission to unveil results of public consultation on unconventional fossil fuels, including shale gas, and decide on regulatory steps.

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