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Fracking the Polish Way

Guess what? Poland has Europe’s largest reserves of shale gas. This means the country once best known for pirogi and Pope John Paul II is now a powerhouse player in the fracking biz. The country’s reserves stretch diagonally across the land from the Baltic Sea in the North to the border of Ukraine in the south (and doesn’t stop there—Ukraine has plenty of shale gas too). Poland’s total estimate: 22.45 trillion cubic meters, of which about 5.3 trillion cubic meters is readily available for extraction. This total puts it far behind China, which has the world’s largest supply of shale gas, and the United States, the runner up. (Russia, another major player, is a special case. No one knows how much shale gas they’ve got, although a good bet is a whole lot, and another good bet is that they’re playing their hand judiciously.)

One perhaps surprising fact about Poland that may explain its enthusiasm for horizontal drilling, i.e., hydraulic fracturing, at a time when many countries are meeting vehement public opposition to the process is that it has a growing number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) on the road, a phenomenon likely sparked by its substantially lower costs over diesel and gasoline.

Poland currently is powered mostly by coal (as are the United States, China, etc.). Thus, being able to close some of its dangerous coal mines in favor of fracking wellheads may be an improvement, depending on your priorities. Furthermore, other European nations, including France and Bulgaria have banned fracking, which makes Poland’s prospects all the more brighter. What natural gas the country (and most of Europe) currently uses is imported from Russia. Weaning themselves from that imported source would be great for Poland’s national economy and the EU’s too.

And of course, the energy companies are lining up to help Poland develop its resource. ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and a handful of others (including love-to-hate-them Halliburton) have all conducted exploratory drilling and acquired concessions. However, ExxonMobil and Marathon Oil recently abandoned their interests due to disappointing preliminary drilling results. The state-controlled Polish company working with these mainly U.S.-based interests is PGNiG.

But within the past several months, the enthusiasm for fracking has been tempered. According to Sara Miller Llana of the Christian Science Monitor, “Two years ago, the Continent’s shale gas seemed a great opportunity for a Europe struggling with a debt crisis, crippling austerity, and record high unemployment. . . . But tapping those reserves requires both political and public support for fracking.” The upshot is that when things get real, the sheen wears off and everything starts to look like a lot of hard work rather than pennies from heaven.

The pretty patchwork map below shows the various concessions that have been awarded for shale gas exploration in the country, with the above-mentioned big boys rubbing shoulders with lesser known operations, such as Indiana Investments and Joyce Investments. It also indicates that commitments have been made. Indeed, a comprehensive law is now being put in place to deal with pesky issues like regulations, pollution, taxes, etc. The law should go into effect in 2015 and by 2020 the industry should be in full swing. As with most things in life, an initial enthusiasm and burst of energy has ceded to the stage of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work. Even though a lot of people have hopped off the bandwagon, it’s still rolling though town.

If you’re a wonk—or if you’ve just got insomnia—the U.S. Energy Information Administration has summarized the oil and gas shale formations in a sophisticated report that fully exploits all of MS Word’s advanced functions. Footnotes, graphs, charts, tables, text boxes and more—they’re all here. The TL/DR version of it is encapsulated in this fantastic infographic:

While Poland’s shale gas formations appear as just a blip on this map, that may be the whole point. When a country with what appears to be a modest amount of shale gas decides to develop those resources as a step toward energy independence not only for itself but for its entire economic region, this map starts to look like the shape of things to come. As efforts to develop alternative and renewable energy resources remain mired in a bureaucratic, technological, economic, and entrepreneurial no man’s land, these red splotches may foretell the global geopolitical situation of the 21st century.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: December 17, 2013, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

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