By Raluca Besliu. Originally published on 2013/06/04
In 2011, when in opposition, current Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) proposed a draft law demanding a complete ban on fracking, arguing that there was still a lack of study and legislative framework that clarified and regulated the technical conditions for exploring and exploiting shale gas.
Greenpeace USA defines fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, as “atechnique used to break apart the dense shale rock, releasing the hydrocarbons (like gas and oil) contained inside. A combination of sand, water and chemicals are mixed together to create a gel called “frack fluid,” which is then injected under high pressure into the shale rock layer deep underground, creating “fractures” in the shale that allow the gas to seep out. These cracks can extend up to 2,500 feet from the injection well.”
After gaining power, however, the PSD-led government rejected its own previously proposed law. Entirely contradicting his previous position on fracking, in January 2013 Prime Minister Victor Ponta emphasized that the possibility of exploiting shale gas should be treated as a positive solution to increase Romania’s energy independence, since the country continued to pay the highest price for gas compared to Bulgaria, Hungary and other countries.
In March 2013, the Romanian Prime Minister went one step further, by affirming that he is in favor of authorizing shale gas exploration and exploitation under appropriate environmental standards, in what he again described as an effort to ensure Romania’s energy independence from Russia.
Ponta has also affirmed: “First, Romania needs to confirm its shale gas resources. We should allow preliminary exploration of the reserves, a process which could take around five years. After that, any future shale gas development should be in compliance with all European and global environmental standards.”
In May 2013, the Romanian Environment Protection Agency issued shale gas exploration permits for U.S. energy company Chevron for two blocks in the Constanta Municipality, Costinesti and Vama Veche, situated near the Bulgarian border. These permits allow the company to conduct controlled explosions at a depth of 10 and 15 meters on an area of 1,800 square kilometers.
Chevron has also been granted urbanization certificates for some areas in the Vaslui county to explore the prospects of extracting shale gas through fracking. The company intends to create its first test wells during the second half of this year. The exploration stage usually lasts for up to two years, while the exploitation starts after 5 years.
According to the U.S. Energy Administration, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary might have a combined 538 billion cubic meters, or 19 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves. In 2010, Romania conceded 870,000 hectares, or 2.2 million acres, in Constanţa’s Costineşti, Vama Veche, Adamclisi, and in Bârlad to U.S. energy company Chevron to start an exploration drilling.
The Romanian government’s support for fracking was boosted during a recent European Council Summit, when Council President Herman Van Rompuy announced “shale gas could be part of the energy mix in a number of [EU] countries.”
Why this position is an issue
What is problematic is that while the Romanian government might be supporting fracking, from a legislative standpoint, Romania currently lacks a differentiation between convention and non-conventional resources and has no procedures to evaluate the impact that shale gas exploration and exploitation can have on the environment.
The Romanian population has vehemently and repeatedly protested against their government’s decision to encourage fracking. In Costinesti, one of the conceded regions, 94 percent of the population voted against fracking during a locally organized referendum. Throughout 2012 and 2013, over 8,000 Romanian citizens have come out to protest. In April 2013, meetings and marches were held in many Romanian cities, in an effort to prevent fracking. Some of the protesters particularly decried the government’s lack of transparency and information on the exploration projects. In a sign of solidarity, in May 2013, Bulgarians from the city of Dobrich also organized rallies against fracking in Romania, which would also have an impact on their country.
The key reasons motivating the Romanian public’s opposition to fracking are that, while still the only known shale gas extracting method, it is a highly controversial practice at the moment. According to a European Parliament report, called Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health, one of the key reasons why fracking is dangerous is that the chemical additives used include “toxic, allergenic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic substances.”
Of the 260 substances to be used for fracking, 58 have problematic properties. Thirthy-eight of these substances are classified as acutely toxic for human health, eight are known carcinogens, such as benzene and acryl amide, ethylene oxide, while seven more are classified as mutagenic (Muta. 1B), such as benzene and ethylene oxide.
The report also identifies some of the key environmental damages that fracking could cause, which include: landscape consumption; air and noise pollution as the machinery is operated by combustion engines; water contamination with chemicals used in the fracking process; small earthquakes in the order of 1-3 at the Richter scale; the mobilization of radioactive particles from underground and some additional biodiversity impacts.
A petition demanding the banning of fracking on Romania’s territory, also draws attention to the fact that, in areas where fracking has been used to extract shale gas, the number of grave diseases, including asthma, leukemia, skin cancer and peripheral neuropathy, is sharply on the rise, primarily as a result of consuming water from exploitation areas and breathing in contaminated air.
The method of exploring shale gas is no less dangerous than that of extracting them, because advanced exploration also uses fracking, with the only difference being that of scale.
As a result of these potential dangers posed by fracking, several European countries have embraced a precautionary approach. France was the first European country to ban fracking in 2011. In 2012, Bulgaria adopted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and immediately revoked an exploration permit previously granted to Chevron, invoking insufficient proof of the environmental safety of the practice.
Similarly, Denmark, Holland, Ireland and the Czech Republic imposed moratoriums on fracking. In the U.S., several U.S. states, such as New York, have also placed moratoriums, while Vermont has banned it altogether.
Following the example of these other states, the Romanian government should also adopt a precautionary approach to fracking and not allow companies, such as Chevron, to explore or exploit shale gas on Romanian territory. The Romanian government also has the responsibility to respect and reflect the wishes of its population, expressed numerous times through protests and referendums. At the same time, the government should realize that exploiting shale gas only postpones the needed strategic and sustainable shift to renewable energy and that its greatest focus should be to develop renewable energy sources for Romania.
At a broader level, EU countries must adopt a clear EU regulatory framework on fracking. As the aforementioned European Parliament report suggests, mining policies should be harmonized at the European level and should cover the specific aspects of hydraulic fracturing.. Finally, the water framework Directive should be broadened to include fracturing activities and their impacts on surface water.