The rush for shale gas in Poland is attracting some of the world’s biggest energy companies, giving the country hopes of energy security and strengthening ties with the United States.
Recent finds in northern Poland appear to confirm what experts have suspected for years - that Poland has Europe’s largest reserves of shale gas. The news promises to encourage what has become a feeding frenzy of major gas companies and Polish hopes of energy independence from Russia.
Shale gas is natural gas trapped in shale rock. In April, a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Poland could have the largest and most accessible shale gas reserves on the continent. But up to now, no one could be sure Poland had any gas at all.
Recently-drilled wells indicate the gas is there, says Pawel Poprawa of the Polish Geological Institute. But, he adds, it is still impossible to tell whether or not it will ever be extracted.
“A couple of these wells altogether seem to confirm the concept," he said. "Yes, we think there is gas in the formation. However, we need to figure out if we are able to get it to the surface, and if we do, then it is a question of if it will be commercial.”
Poprawa says it will be several years before anyone knows exactly how much gas Poland has, and at least a decade before large-scale production can begin. But in the mean time, exploration concessions have been granted to some of the biggest energy companies in the world.
“We have on our market real majors, the biggest companies globally," he said. "We have here Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Total - this is kind of unique, really. This place a couple of years ago was empty. Now everybody from the world comes here to make their exploration.”
Many of these companies are American, which has sparked the interest of U.S. policy makers. On his recent visit to Warsaw, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States is eager to cooperate with Poland in producing shale gas.
“Shale gas is an important opportunity," the president said. "We believe that there is 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 in a fully transparent and accountable way.”
Agata Hinc, of the Warsaw-based research organization Demos Europa, explains that collaborating on shale gas could also lead to closer political ties between the United States and Poland.
“For American companies it means money," she said. "But it also means stable international cooperation on important issues that will last longer than two months.”
But when it comes to energy, Poland’s main geopolitical concern lies to the east. The country has long been dependent on gas from Russia, and Hinc says that for many Poles, independence from their former communist rulers is a major concern.
“Energy security has meant for a very long time, and for some still means, independence from Russian gas here in Poland," she said. "This is a very big political issue. I would not say the younger generation thinks about it that much, but certainly the older generations and our policy makers want to ensure that we are totally independent from our big neighbor”
Shale gas has become controversial in recent years. Environmentalists claim that during the process of hydraulic extraction - known as “fracking” - gas and other contaminants from the process can seep into the ground water, damaging the environment and posing a health risk. In the United States, New York State has imposed a moratorium on fracking, and France has forbidden any new exploration.
Spokesman Jacek Winiarski of the Warsaw branch of Greenpeace says companies in Poland need to take the environmental impact into account.
“We know what are the American experiences with drilling and extracting shale gas," he said. "It causes water pollution, animal diseases, and other environmental pollution. We perceive gas as a temporary transition fuel between coal and renewables, so we are not against gas, but gas extracted in a safe way.”
But Hinc explains Poland’s priorities tend to be different from those in the West, and that for now, environmental concerns are likely to take a back seat when faced with the prospect of energy independence.
“In the richest countries in Europe, green groups are very strong because people want to live in a clean environment, which is not the case in Poland, at least not yet," she said. "As for now, cheap electricity and energy security are the most important issues.”
Fracking may begin later this summer, and for now, the size of Poland’s shale gas reserves can only be guessed at. But with 120 new wells planned for the coming years, it appears the eyes of the world will be on Poland for a long time.