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In Poland, Pursuing Valuable Energy Deep in the Earth Fuels Dissent Above Ground

May 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Poland recently eased regulations on fracking, with the hope that shale gas will boost the economy, reduce energy dependence and prices. But local residents fear their concerns are taking a backseat to progress. Special correspondent Steve Sapienza reports, as part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally tonight, we turn to Poland, where there’s a familiar controversy surrounding new energy exploration.

Our story is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and comes from special correspondent Steve Sapienza.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Northern Poland, a rustic region of freshwater lakes, forests and villages, and thousands of feet below the surface, a potential fortune in natural gas trapped in shale rock. Energy companies are already drilling here, using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of gas extraction imported from the United States.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We believe that there’s the capacity technologically to extract that gas in a way that is entirely safe. And what we want to do is to be able to share our expertise and technology with Poland.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Since 2010, a U.S. State Department initiative has quietly promoted the development of shale gas resources in countries like Poland.

Exploration drilling sites like this one offer the promise of a shale gas boom in Poland. But many residents who live near the drilling sites feel that the gas companies and their government have left them out of the decisions that could crucially impact their way of life.

GRAZNYA MAZANOWSKA, Poland: We are Strzegowo, a small rural community. Behind us, there is a new investment, a gas rig.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Last June, the unexpected arrival of drilling operators sense local residents like Graznya Mazanowska scrambling for information.

GRAZNYA MAZANOWSKA: We discovered what it was when some workers who weren’t local started building an access road. And there was no information provided to us by local authorities.

STEVE SAPIENZA: About 30 energy companies, both state-owned and international, are operating in Poland. While the majority of Poles support shale gas exploration, residents who live near the drilling sites say they want it safely extracted.

GRAZNYA MAZANOWSKA: We are not against shale gas, but we want to enforce that the company’s compliance with our laws and to ensure that the most important things, the water and the environment, are preserved. We are going to be here long after the company is gone.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Hydraulic fracturing was developed in the United States. The process involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture the shale rock and release the gas. Fracking is credited with sparking a U.S. energy boom, creating jobs and lowering energy prices.

Yet the process has also raised questions about water contamination and air pollution that are under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency. In Europe, France and Bulgaria have banned fracking due to environmental concerns. However, the Polish government recently eased drilling regulations. It’s banking on shale gas to boost Poland’s economy, reduce dependence on Russian gas imports and cut energy prices.

So far, early exploration efforts in Northern Poland have been met with resistance and suspicion by locals. Last August, a gas company subcontractor visited Ed Sawicki, seeking permission to survey for shale gas on his 340-year-old family farm.

EDWARD SAWICKI, Poland: He left some papers with me to sign. The top one was a blank form. But I looked at the one underneath, which had a handwritten note on it, “Oral permission granted.”

STEVE SAPIENZA: Sawicki soon discovered his neighbors had signed the papers, claiming they were promised free gas and oil.

EDWARD SAWICKI: I get grants as an organic former from the E.U. How is it possible for someone to drill for gas on land that had been certified as organic and dedicated for organic farming?

STEVE SAPIENZA: Worried the family farm was hanging in the balance, Sawicki took his frustrations public.

EDWARD SAWICKI: I got this idea to use a wall of my barn to protest against shale gas exploration in our area. I have lost faith in self-governance on all levels, whether it’s the county, county councils or mayors. There’s no point in voting, because nothing has changed since the communist era.

STEVE SAPIENZA: In its quest for shale gas, Poland hopes to emulate the U.S. model.

But there are big differences, says energy expert John Banks of the Brookings Institution.

JOHN BANKS, Brookings Institution: You have some very significant infrastructure constraints to taking advantage of shale gas in a region such as Poland. You also have differences where regard to the mineral rights.

STEVE SAPIENZA: U.S. landowners own the rights to the gas and oil below their land. Not so in Poland, where the state owns everything 50 centimeters and below.

JOHN BANKS: If you don’t own the mineral rights, then you don’t have as much skin in the game. And therefore you might be more inclined to not promote or support shale gas development.

STEVE SAPIENZA: A gas drilling pad sits 300 meters from farmer Mieczyslaw Rutkowski’s fields.

MIECZYSLAW RUTKOWSKI, Farmer: We live in an elevated area. The soil is very weak and permeable. We often experience droughts.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Fracking typically uses between two million and five million gallons of locally sourced water per well.

MIECZYSLAW RUTKOWSKI: I suspect that with the depletion of groundwater, we will have a very serious problem. I keep looking at this horrible rig and wonder whether it will pose a threat to us. We would like to see some assurances from the government that we are going to be compensated in case of some ecological disaster that will impact our livelihoods.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The government says, should a drilling accident occur, local residents have the right to sue the drilling company.

MACIEJ WOZNIAK, Poland Ministry of the Environment: The farmer has the ability to defend his rights at the court. And that’s — sometimes, it is obvious that it will find a way finished in court. But that’s democracy, right?

STEVE SAPIENZA: The Polish government sees a future where shale gas revenues fill state and local coffers and Polish consumers have lower energy bills.

MACIEJ WOZNIAK: The Polish economy will make money by reducing gas prices thanks to national production.

STEVE SAPIENZA: So far, Polish residents have seen little direct benefit from the drilling rigs in their midst.

GRAZNYA MAZANOWSKA: We are very skeptical about any potential benefits to our community. They promised employment, but everybody realizes that only expert workers with special training can be employed here.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Gas companies have just started to explore concessions that cover nearly one-third of Poland’s territory. This all but guarantees more Polish citizens will come into contact with gas exploration efforts in the years to come.

JOHN BANKS: In Poland, you’re talking about a much more densely populated area, as opposed to, say, some of the basins in the Western part of the United States. And I think you will find that having a big impact on the progress of shale gas production.

MARCIN ZIEBA, Polish Exploration and Production Industry Organization: We don’t have, the country, so long history within the shale gas operation and even exploration. So this educational part of the process should be treated with extreme caution.

STEVE SAPIENZA: If exploration is to move forward, drilling operators will need the support of local communities, says Marcin Zieba, spokesperson for the shale gas drilling operators in Poland.

MARCIN ZIEBA: There are plenty of myths that are circulated among the local communities.

And the role of the operators should be to dispel such myths and to give the real picture of how hydraulic fracking works, that maybe the amount of chemicals used during the fracturing is not that significant. Maybe these substances used during hydraulic fracturing are not that dangerous as some of the materials throughout the Internet try to show.

STEVE SAPIENZA: For now, the Polish government and gas drillers face the challenge of pursuing valuable energy deep in the earth without fueling dissent above ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: That report was a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. You will find a link to their special report on this issue on our website.