Getting Ready for Another Unanimous Rejection of Fracking
For Romanians who have voiced opposition to plans to allow shale gas operations in Romania, 2013 started with disappointing news. Romanian Prime Minister Ponta voiced support for shale gas exploration. And his government approved new shale gas licences in the county of Bihor, in the northwest of Romania. Similar to previous licences, the process of awarding licences as well as their terms remain unclear, because Romania’s National Agency for Mineral Resources has – again – failed to be transparent. The prime minister, his government and companies clearly did not learn the lessons from the clear rejection of shale gas projects in several referendums in southern Romania last year.
On the same day as Romania’s parliamentary elections in early December of last year, three towns in Dobrogea – Costinești, Limanu and Mangalia – called upon the people to voice their opinion on shale gas in their area. The question was whether they agree with the use of hydraulic fracturing method for shale gas exploitation in the area or not. Only the town of Costinești was able to meet the required number of votes (50% + 1 of the electorate) to be valid. The results are noteworthy: 94, 4% of the voters in Costinesti were against the use of hydraulic fracturing. In the other two towns, the results were similar with a massive rejection of fracking (89% in Limanu and 84% in Mangalia), but the turnout did not reach the threshold there. For the parliamentary elections, voter turnout was generally low, at 42 %. This article argues that the lack of transparency, debate and adequate regulation of shale gas played a major role in the public backlash.
Shale gas has recently emerged on the public agenda after much secrecy has surrounded previous official decisions on shale gas. The awarding of the project agreements were kept confidential in accordance with Romanian law, as they are considered to be serving strategic national interest objectives. This lack of transparency and public debate guaranteed a growing opposition to the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing.
Without official sources informing the public, Chevron was the first to publicly announce its plans to exploit shale gas and remains the main player in Romania with four licences. Only after strong protests occurred in April 2012, the government was forced to declassify information about these shale gas licences. It is not only Chevron benefiting from similar agreements with the authorities. Hungary’s MOL and Canada’s East West Petroleum also have obtained drilling agreements with the National Agency for Mineral Resources. These were approved by the government in December. The Canadian company Sterling Resources has licenses to explore conventional gas reserves in Romania, but has stated they will use the same blocks to also look for shale gas.
In Romania, only prospection and some exploratory drillings have taken place so far. Seismic studies have already been done in Bârlad and two vertical exploration drills to depths of 2,500-3,500 m will be built in the next two years. The first exploration wells is to be installed near the towns of Costineşti, Adamclisi and Vama Veche on the Black Sea coast; highly vulnerable areas with fragile ecosystems, historic heritage (Adamclisi, or the ancient city of Calatis) and tourism activities. These drillings were stopped due to strong public criticism and massive protests. In response, the current Government imposed a moratorium until the end of 2012.
Romania should introduce specific regulations for shale gas exploration to settle related environmental and property issues and ensure access to the gas pipelines. Exploration for shale gas has a much bigger environmental impact than conventional gas exploration because it requires the use of large amounts of chemicals and water to extract the gas from layers deep beneath the surface. And water is a scarce resource in the eastern region of the country but mostly in south-east Dobrogea. In the absence of a regulatory review of the relevant rules and up-to-date technological data, any attempt to grant a license for the development of hydraulic fracturing in the area would be met with extremely stiff resistance.
The water footprint of hydraulic fracturing is well known, given that significant quantities of fresh water – an average quantity of 15.000 cubic meters per well – are removed from the existing reserves. Up to 60-70% of the injected fluid remains stored underground and is permanently removed from the natural water cycle. The depletion of already limited water resources is a huge concern, because it remains unclear which water source is to be used. The partly de-classified permits issued in Dobrogea stipulated that oil and gas companies have full access to any available source of fresh water in the area. This goes against the obligation to impose “controls over the abstraction of fresh surface water and groundwater, and impoundment of fresh surface water”, as required under Article 11(3)(e) of the European union’s Water Framework Directive.
Moreover, neither of the regions designated for shale gas exploration have industrial facilities for cleaning the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The local water treatment plant in the town Barlad hardly meets the needs of the residents. And in rural areas, there are no such facilities. These fluids would be stored as toxic waste in special deep injection wells, as it is done in many cases in the United States. The declassified license for Dobrogea included this possibility, even though the European Commission has made it repeatedly clear deep-well injection of fracking fluids is not allowed under the Water Framework Directive.
One particular objection of the local populations against the injection of hazardous / toxic chemicals in the underground is the lack of understanding about its longer-term effects, which have not been studied yet. There is a considerable risk that such deep-well injections will contaminate deep aquifers and groundwater. In addition, the practice of injecting water into deep rock formations may also cause earthquakes. Barlad is in the neighborhood of Vrancea, which is a region with seismic activities. For Dobrogea, seismologists provided evidence that the large fault Shabla–Snagov-Vidraru, was re-activated in recent years.
Operations on the surface can negatively impact the soil as well. The cumulative impact of exploration and exploitation works will restrict other traditional economic activities in the area, such as agriculture and tourism on Black Sea coast, thus jeopardizing its chances for sustainable development. Any new employment that shale gas might bring to the region might cause a loss of jobs in other sectors. In addition, the shale gas industry’s ‘thirst’ for enormous quantities of water will compete for water resources that are currently used for agriculture and social needs. This will put an additional stress on the current supply of water from underground aquifers.
Despite the myriad environmental challenges for the shale gas industry to get a grip on, the biggest problem that the companies are facing remains the lack of confidence in the public opinion. Due to secrecy that surrounded the licencing and the lack of adequate regulation of unconventional gas activities, the public was informed only in January 2012, when activists started to request public information from authorities. Ministers supplied some information, but the answers by the Romanian authorities often remained ambiguous or were not even answered. Such secrecy led to a strong local civil society response: protests and large meetings in Bârlad; 4,000 people attended a meeting in March, and 7,000 in April. Similarly big protests were held in Constanța, Vama Veche, Costinești and Bucharest (see picture). No representative of the central Govern responded to the protesters’ request for dialogue.