Europe has lived with the spectre of energy dependence on Russia for years, but Ukraine’s 2009 gas crisis and its 2014 Russia-supported separatist conflict have alarmed both Europe and the US.
According to Claudia Kemfert, at the German Institute of Economic Research in Berlin, US geopolitical interests lie in reducing Europe’s dependency on Russia.
“US energy companies intend to compete within the European market and become dominant players, especially as competitors to Russian companies,” she said.
In Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, heated debates currently focus on the use of shale gas. Activists insist that the environment faces a real threat and that their actions do not support special interest groups or countries.
We are against fracking because it poisons our land. We have nothing, no jobs. We feed ourselves from raising cattle and working our land.
When Chevron trucks and workers appeared near the Romanian village of Pungesti on October 13, the villagers quickly came out to protest.
The following day they gathered around the site of Chevron’s planned shale gas explorations and chased workers away. Since then, the whole village has been mobilised to protest and resist Chevron and its fracking activities, prompting Chevron to file a legal suit. Activists from across Romania have joined them and have set up a permanent protest camp near the village.
“We have nothing personal against Chevron, we just don’t want fracking,” says Pungesti resident Ana Maria Munteanu, a 34-year-old mother of three. Both she and her husband are currently unemployed.
“We are against fracking because it poisons our land. We have nothing, no jobs. We feed ourselves from raising cattle and working our land,” she explains.
Munteanu says she has been accused of taking bribes from Russian companies to participate in the demonstrations. She says that she suspects the local authorities, interested in dividends from the shale gas drilling, were spreading such rumours.
“They are welcome to come to my home and check that I haven’t been taking money,” she says.
Munteanu and her neighbours are not the only anti-fracking protesters accused of taking money from Russia to campaign against shale gas. Anti-fracking protests across Europe have come under fire in local and international media. Most recently, the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quoted as saying that Russia has engaged with environmental organisations working against shale gas in its efforts to keep Europe dependent on its gas exports.
Clash of interests
According to Kemfert, it is in the interest of the US to have Europe move away from energy dependence on Russia. In Eastern Europe, the competition between Russian and US energy interests has reached a particularly fervent pitch. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, shale gas exploration hit the top of the agenda as US officials visited Bucharest, Warsaw and Sofia.
“We discussed shale gas [with US Vice President Joe Biden]. It is quite clear that the US is encouraging such exploitation,” Romanian PM Victor Ponta was quoted as saying after Biden’s visit to Bucharest in May.
Energy independence and shale gas were also discussed during US President Barack Obama’s two visits to Poland in 2011 and 2014, and Hilary Clinton’s Bulgaria trip in 2012.
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At the same time, Russia and its gas giant Gazprom have also established a strong lobby to protect their interests in Europe, including employing former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Russia has pushed for major projects to expand delivery of natural gas to Europe, including Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines. The construction of the latter was recently shelved in Bulgaria after pressure from the EU.
According to Krassen Stanchev, a Bulgarian economist and head of the Institute for Market Economics, the influence of Russia and Gazprom in Bulgaria surfaced during parliamentary debates over a bill to ban shale gas exploration, which was passed in 2012.
“The whole procedure and arguments are obvious evidence of corruption in the Parliament, [under the form of] serving the interests of Gazprom by all parliamentary factions,” he said.
He said Bulgaria’s pursuit of energy independence is not protecting US interests, pointing out that shale gas exploitation can push the country’s energy dependence on Russian gas from 94 percent to between 55 and 71 percent, depending on discovered reserves. Bulgaria has not allowed any exploration to determine its actual shale gas reserves.
Rasmussen’s remarks came at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West and were seen by environmentalists as an unfair attack on activists and NGOs.
NATO press officer Peggy Beauplet told Al Jazeera: “Russia has been using a mix of hard and soft power in its attempt to recreate a sphere of influence, including through a campaign of disinformation on many issues, including energy.”
The press office refused to give information regarding the engagement between Russia and environmental NGOs, saying that they “don’t go into details of the Secretary-General’s discussions with allied leaders”.
Anti-fracking campaigns have faced accusations in other parts of Eastern Europe, but, as in Bulgaria, no proof has been put forward. In Romania, Pungesti villagers like Monteanu and the protest movement that formed around them have been accused of receiving cash from Russia.
“As far as the Pungesti Protest Movement is concerned, which I preside over, I can assure you we haven’t received illegal or questionable funding and we have never been contacted by any representatives of any Russian company or group of interests active in Romania,” says activist Constantin Paslaru, adding that accusations from people representing European and global institutions are “baseless” and “irresponsible”.
In Bulgaria, environmentalists have called Rasmussen to either put forward evidence or apologise for his remarks.
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“We were always looking for an open debate to explain why banning [fracking] in Bulgaria is the right thing to do,” said Borislav Sandov, one of the leaders of the Zelenite Party (the Greens Party) , which led the anti-fracking campaign. “Accusations that the campaign was paid for were never proven and these were just slander thrown in the public space – aimed at tarnishing the reputation of people engaged in this campaign.
“If I could respond to Mr Rasmussen on behalf of the Bulgarian campaign, I would say that it is insulting that we should become a victim of this communications war between [NATO and Russia].” Sandov added: “When we were campaigning against the South Stream pipeline, we were told that we were getting paid by Obama and NATO. When we were against shale gas, we are told the opposite.”
As in Pungesti, campaigners say the threat of pollution could reach disastrous levels in Bulgaria. The area which Chevron planned to explore for shale gas included part of Dobrudzha, a region in the northeast which operates as the primary grain producer for the country. Dobrudzha has no surface fresh water and relies on an aquifer. According to Sandov, fracking would put underground water at high risk of contamination, which would affect agriculture and people’s health.
Currently, the Zelenite Party is coordinating with environmental organisations on the Romanian side. The Dobrudzha aquifer is shared between Bulgaria and Romania, and one of the sites marked for shale gas exploration by Chevron happens to be on the Romanian side of Dobrudzha.
In Poland, the government persuaded the public of the merits of shale gas drilling by highlighting the potential revenues that would go towards social services. According to Lech Kowalski, a Polish-American film-maker, national media overwhelmingly backed that view.
“Polish media proclaimed that Poland had 300 years worth of shale gas and that caused a tremendous amount of euphoria,” he said.
However, anti-fracking campaigning kicked off in Poland after Chevron faced off with local farmers in the village of Zurawlow. Kowalski, who filmed the clash, explains that the locals managed to block Chevron vehicles and workers from reaching the drilling site and ever since then have been in a direct confrontation with the company. The confrontation has escalated through protests and legal action.
Since the Zurawlow blockade, allegations made in the media suggest that the farmers were serving the interests of Gazprom and Russia – a grave accusation in Poland where anti-Russian sentiments are high.
Meanwhile, additional research by the Polish Geological Institute scaled down the predictions on Poland’s gas reserves by 90 percent and various technical and financial impediments have prevented mass exploitation.
Today, tensions surrounding the Zurawlow resistance persist as Chevron and the local farmers continue to face off – and as relations between the West and Russia worsen, the future of the anti-fracking movements in Eastern Europe remains uncertain.