“Whenever Chevron organised anything, we demonstrated,” said Barbara Siegienczuk, 54, one of the leaders of the local anti-shale gas protest group Green Zurawlow in south-eastern Poland. “We made banners and placards and put posters up around the village. Only 96 people live in Zurawlow – children and old people included – but we stopped Chevron!”
For 400 days, farmers and their families from Zurawlow and four nearby villages blockaded a proposed Chevron shale drilling site with tractors and agricultural machinery. Eventually, in July, the company abandoned its plans.
Poland’s environment ministry says that shale gas is hugely popular but mobilisations against it were impressive and fuelled by claims that damage had already been done.
“Roads were damaged and destroyed when seismic tests were done with heavy machinery,” said Slawomir Damiluk, 50, a farmer in nearby Rogow. “The fact is that people’s houses had cracks in their walls afterwards. When Chevron tried to start up with their machinery, I was one who was involved. We blocked the entry roads.”
Supported by urban greens, anarchists, squatters and vegans, villagers set up a colourful protest camp – complete with a cinema, online live-streaming, samba bands and installation art – and occupied the site around the clock.
“The women who lived here began learning how to cook without meat because during the protest we had agreed that nobody would go hungry,” Siegienczuk said. “We opened our minds and hearts to people who looked and ate differently, from another culture.”
Dozens of activists are still facing a criminal lawsuit filed by Chevron, and many more were filmed by mystery cameramen whose stills were used in subsequent court cases. Siegienczuk believes that her phone was tapped.
“Once, I heard several people talking on the line and a male voice asked ‘are we going to tap this woman’s phone too?’ I was terrified and passed my phone to other protestors who heard the same voices. After that, my mobile phone turned off,” she said.
Zurawlow, in south-eastern Poland, where people successfully campaigned against drilling by Chevron. The protest banner reads: ‘Poland has gas, America has profits.’ Photograph: Stanislaw Wadas/Demo
Sally Jones, a spokesperson for Chevron, told the Guardian: “Chevron respects the right of individuals to express their opinions, however it should be done within the law. Chevron remains committed to building constructive and positive relationships with the communities where we operate.”
But local people in the area covered by Chevron’s concession, claim that such relationships went beyond what might be reasonably termed constructive.
Villagers allege that one woman whose water well became polluted at the same time that seismic tests were being conducted in the area received a building renovation paid for by Chevron, and promptly stopped complaining about the issue.
Shortly after that, a local protest leader dropped out of the movement and took up work as a Chevron security guard, leading to accusations that he had been bought off.
Wojciech Zukowski, mayor of Tomaszów Lubelski town, south-east Poland. Photograph: Stanislaw Wadas/Demotix
Wojciech Zukowski, the recently re-elected mayor of Tomaszów Lubelski town, in Poland’s southeast, said that he saw no conflict of interest in accepting private or public gifts from multinationals. “I’m not trying to hide that some forms of sponsoring and support takes place here,” he told the Guardian.
“We are open for it,” he said, adding that a town sports club with 250 members would benefit from corporate sponsorship.
Chevron declined to respond to the villagers’ claims but insisted that “we comply with laws and regulations in all counties we do business in.”
The company has donated to several charities in the US and Romania, where it has also invested in shale exploration. In southeast Poland, it has provided charity services to villages at Christmas and offered gifts to residents’ children such as fluffy tigers carrying Chevron logos, and sweets.
“We demonstrate our commitment to the communities where we operate by creating jobs, employing local workforces, and developing and sourcing from local suppliers,” a company statement said.
The Tomaszów Lubelski district has been hard-hit by unemployment and jobs have been a key persuader for the industry.
Close to the exploratory shale drill in nearby Susiec, Jacek, a 40-year-old shop worker said that the shale gas plans “are going to be good as there will be jobs for us and gas will be cheaper. It’s a jobs issue. Possibly my kids might have jobs there.”
The town’s pro-shale mayor ran a campaign on the economic benefits that shale gas could offer the depressed town, hanging a ‘Putinologists – bugger off!’ banner in the town square. But in a regional trend, he was deposed in favour of a more shale-sceptic opponent in November, who advanced an alternative geothermal energy-based plan.
“We don’t need shale gas,” said Maria, a 39-year-old worker in the same store as Jacek. “It’s one big scam. Nobody informed us about what’s happening. The ex-mayor was useless. He just promised work for everyone but there was nothing. We are not going to work on the well. The people who have agro-tourism businesses know that it’s not beneficial as the environment will be destroyed and people won’t come here anymore.”
Deer run across an icy field in Majdan Sopocki, a village in Tomaszów Lubelski county, south-east Poland. Photograph: Stanislaw Wadas/Demotix
On the Natura 2000 site that borders the Susiec well, Narnia-style pine tree forests are frosted in ice and snow. Deers and eagles flit in and out of the fog like phantoms. But at the fence marking the shale well, the deer tracks abruptly stop and double back on themselves.
Fears that one of Poland’s last remaining redoubts of biodversity could be damaged have mobilised local feeling, as polarisation and bitterness have spread across the Tomaszów Lubelski district. Zukowski suggested that village protesters were being manipulated by dark forces.
“It could be said that their actions were inspired by the government of Mr Putin,” he said. “I don’t have such knowledge but [the protests] went hand in hand with the Kremlin’s intentions. Gas and oil are a useful tool for Russia to get involved in other countries’ energy security. It is a proxy to pressure authorities to take certain decisions along the Kremlin’s lines. It is like a political secret. Everyone knows it but no-one wants to name it.”
A shale gas exploration drilling rig near Majdan Sopocki, owned by the Polish state-owned oil and gas company PGNiG.Photograph: Stanislaw Wadas/Demotix
Jones at Chevron described such claims as speculation. But similar accusationshave been levelled by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of Nato, and by pro-shale officials in Romania and Lithuania, as cold war-style tensions have ratcheted.
Even the patriotic case for pressing ahead with shale gas has been dented by claims from campaigners in Pomerania that toxic waste from shale drills wasdumped in a rural stream.
Environmentalists believe that water tainted by shale salts may have entered the Radunia river used for supplying water to Gdansk, the birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity movement.
T-shirts and caps with anti-fracking messages at the headquarters of the Zurawlow anti-fracking movement. Photograph: Stanislaw Wadas/Demotix
In November, the French water company, Veolia, was ordered to stop processing shale effluent in a nearby water purification centre because of permitting infractions.
The Polish environment ministry denies that Gdansk’s drinking water was ever put at risk, but such allegations undercut the energy independence case for shale gas, and feed nationalist objections. “The people of Zurawlow might have liked shale gas investment but the issue was these were Americans,” Damiluk said. “We don’t want foreign investors on a land that belongs to us.”
Chevron, the last of the big multinational shale investors is still holding on to its sole concession in Zwierzyniec, which was extended for a year in December. However, the decision’s small print limits future drilling to a small parcel of land the company has already explored.
“If Chevron’s partner PGNiG wins permission to drill in Tomaszów Lubelski, I hope the people there will use the same tactics to block new drills that we did,” Siegienczuk said. “We are open and ready to give any support we can.”
The Zurawlow blockade influenced the UK’s anti-fracking protests at Balcombe in the summer of 2013, and similar battles have flared across Poland since the country became Europe’s front line for shale gas exploration.
A soon-to-be-updated study by the Polish Geological Institute in March 2012 estimated that recoverable shale gas volumes under the country at between 346bn and 768bn cubic metres – the third biggest in Europe and enough to supply the country’s gas needs for between 35 and 65 years.
Bordering volatile Ukraine and heavily reliant on gas from Putin’s Russia, the promise of secure domestically-produced energy made politicians sit up. A year earlier, in September 2011, the country’s then-president Donald Tusk made a bold claim that the shale industry would begin commercial drilling in 2014.
“After years of dependence on our large neighbour (Russia), today we can say that my generation will see the day when we will be independent in the area of natural gas and we will be setting terms,” he said, adding that well conducted exploration, “would not pose a danger to the environment.”
But things haven’t turned out that way. Plans for a shale gas-fuelled economic revival appear to be evaporating as test wells have not performed as expected or have suffered regulatory delays. Foreign investors have pulled out and sustained environmental protests like that in Zurawlow have hampered drilling plans.
Officials privately talk of the shale experiment as a ‘disaster’.
In September, 3Legs Resources became the latest firm to call a halt on investments after disappointing results. Six weeks before, its chief financial officer, Alex Fraser, had said they were “potentially on the threshold of a very significant result,” involving “potentially hundreds of wells”.
“Companies’ expectations were very high and now we learn that this is a long term process,” said Pawel Mikusek, a spokesman for Poland’s environment ministry. “The experience of the US is that it also took a long time to reach industrial use – 10-15 years – so we need to be more patient. We don’t have such high expectations as two or three years ago.”
But with falling oil prices, continued supplies of cheap coal and EU pressure to increase cost-competitive renewable power generation, the shale gas industry needs positive results fast, and less controversy. 2015 will be a “pivotal” year for the Polish industry, according to industry group Shale Gas Europe.
Multi-billion dollar tax incentives are in the pipeline and a new law should soon speed up permitting processes that can take years. But this has already sparked an EU legal action for allowing firms to drill at depths of up to 5,000m without first assessing environmental risks.
Seven of the 11 multinationals which invested in Poland – including Exxon,Talisman and Marathon – have already pulled out, citing permit delays and disappointing results. Most shale activity is now being led by Poland’s state-controlled PGNiG, and by Orlen and Lotus.
Just 66 wells have been drilled to date – 12 involving horizontal fracking – and permits for a further 27 drills were put on hold in the southeastern Tomaszów Lubelski region last month, pending the outcome of a lengthy inquiry.
Analysts blame regulatory hold-ups for fraying investors nerves, but in Tomaszów Lubelski, which is home to a forest protected under Europe’s gold-standard ‘Natura 2000’ scheme and a proposed Unesco biosphere, environmental protestors claim credit for throwing a pitchfork in the industry’s wheels.