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Pungesti: Romania's battlefield against Chevron

Romanian villagers struggle to protect their land and environment from fracking.

Last updated: 13 Dec 2013 10:33
Raluca Besliu

Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. She runs a blog about young changemakers and entrepreneurs called Taking on the Giant.
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Pungesti residents have tried to prevent Chevron from starting exploration for shale gas near their village [AFP/Getty Images]

For the past few days, the small village of Pungesti has become a battle scene between protesters opposing US energy giant Chevron's intention to explore for shale gas in a nearby field and Romanian police forces, sent by the government to protect Chevron in installing its equipment. Among other instances of police aggression, multiple protesters were beaten and taken to the police station for investigation after dismantling the fence that Chevron has built to surround its ceded land. The Pungesti residents have been camping outside the field since mid-October, when they were successful in making Chevron withdraw its shale gas exploration equipment.  

According to a report published [Ro] by key Romanian experts, Chevron's petroleum agreements, and implicitly all the company's current activities in Romania, are illegal because the Petroleum Law 238/2004, used as their legal basis, does not cover non-conventional resources, such as shale gas. In fact, the notion of "non-conventional resources" has not yet been legally defined in Romania.

Moreover, it is still to be determined if the property that Chevron is rushing to drill on is lawfully occupied. The Pungesti mayor, who offered his territory to the energy company, is currently investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Agency for transferring [Ro] it in his name from the neighbouring commune through a protocol unauthorised by the County Commission for Land Ownership.

In October 2013, days after the first confrontation with Chevron, the local council in Pungesti unanimously adopted a decision to ban shale gas exploration and exploitation on their land. This is seemingly irrelevant to both the Romanian government and Chevron. When asked about the police's recent forceful intervention, the Romanian Prime Minister said that the actions [Ro] were in accordance with the law. Aside from the land in Pungesti, Chevron has been given around 870,000 hectares in multiple parts of the country for exploration and exploitation purposes.

The Pungesti villagers' struggle has been supported by hundreds of thousands of Romanians taking to the streets in cities across Romania and abroad since the end of August 2013 to protest against a cyanide mining project.

Fighting fracking worldwide

In the European context, Romania's decision to pursue hydraulic fracturing is inexplicable since other European countries, such as France, Germany and Bulgaria, have placed either bans or moratoriums on fracking.

These countries have expressed concerns regarding the environmental consequences of fracking, brought to light by numerous scientific reports. A recent study by Duke University researchers, which analysed 141 water wells in north-eastern Pennsylvania, highlighted the fact that methane levels were around six times higher in the water wells closer to the drilling sites than those situated farther away, while ethane was 23 times higher. In high concentrations, methane can be explosive and deadly.

Fault Lines - Elsipogtog: The Fire Over Water

Romanians are not the only people protesting against Chevron's fracking initiatives. Several other projects have been met with popular opposition. The Polish villagers of Zurawlow managed to block Chevron's intention to drill in 2012, by invoking a Polish law prohibiting activities on ground and air that disrupt birds' habits and habitats during the breeding season. In June 2013, Chevron returned to Zurawlow with security guards to install its equipment on a conceded territory. The locals recommenced their protests, by emphasising that the company had not obtained approval to build fences and that its authorisation to explore for shale gas in the area had been cancelled in June 2012. Chevron claimed that it has an exploration license. In November 2013, the company filed a civil lawsuit against the villagers claiming that they have been violating its lawful right to access the site.

Like Romanians and Poles, Argentinians have also expressed their opposition to fracking. Ever since the Argentinian government reached an agreement with Chevron in July 2013, allowing it to drill more than 100 wells in the short-term and an additional 1,500 by 2017, massive numbers of Argentines have been demonstrating against fracking. In their opposition, they have had an important supporter, Pope Francis, who has met with Argentinian anti-fracking activists and held up T-shirts with their slogans.

Energy dependence?

One of the major arguments used by the Romanian government to gain public support has been to suggest that shale gas exploitation could ensure Romania's energy independence from Russia. According to Eurostat, Romania is one of the least energy dependent countries in the EU. Romania is currently importing only a third of its annual gas consumption from Russia, while producing the rest from local fields. Romania holds the third largest natural gas reserve in Europe, after Norway and the Netherlands, and the 30th worldwide.

Therefore, Romania is quite independent and if it wanted to, it could be more independent simply by better exploiting its conventional gas resources. However current laws and agreements allow foreign companies to export Romania's energy resources with little benefit for the country.

According to the Romanian Petrol Law, "the holder of the petrol agreement has the right to dispose of its oil as it pleases, including to export it." In the agreements with Chevron, the company gets 100 percent of the shale gas and has the right to export all the extracted gas abroad. Moreover, the royalties that Chevron owes the Romanian state are financial, not shale gas. Therefore, it seems that Romania is selling itself short and losing its precious resources, while potentially irreparably damaging the environment.

Furthermore, it is important to consider the cost that the country will have to pay for environmental damage and displacement. In villages, such as Pungesti, people are farmers and rely on their land and water used in agriculture to survive. If they are deprived of their land, they can no longer earn their living and are thus thrown into a desperate and undeserved state of poverty.

The fracking protests in Romania, Poland and Argentina also brings up the ethical question of the responsibility to preserve natural resources for future generations or, when needed, to use the resources in a way that adequately benefits future generations through savings or investments.

The Romanian government, which, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, is only slightly less corrupt than Bulgaria and Greece among its fellow EU members, and ranked last in ability to absorb European Union funds, is not the type of government, which cares enough for its current or future citizens or has the needed economic know-how to responsibly administer the country's resources.

Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. She runs a blog about young changemakers and entrepreneurs called Taking on the Giant. Follow her on Twitter: @Raluca_Besliu

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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