Death or Salvation: Shale Gas in Poland

Newly built office towers in Warsaw vie for prominence with the Palace of Culture and Science, an architectural legacy of the Stalinist period and still the tallest building in the country. Although 23 years have passed since Poland broke away from the Soviet sphere of influence and embarked on a road to democracy and market liberalization, it is still largely dependent on Russian energy supplies. Most of Poland’s oil and two-thirds of its gas are imported from Russia. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Russia (initially the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union) has been Poland’s archrival and oppressor for centuries and the resentment runs deep through all layers of Polish society. Even today, as one walks through downtown Warsaw, the reminders of Russian crimes are everywhere on display. This exhibition shows the exhumations at Bykivnia, "the Ukrainian Katyn," where 3,435 Polish citizens were murdered in 1940 by NKVD (state security) on Stalin’s orders. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

So far, 111 exploration concessions have been awarded to about 30 companies, both state-owned and international, on a territory of 90,000 square km, or nearly a third of the entire country. Piotr Wozniak (pictured) was made the country’s Chief National Geologist at the Ministry of the Environment, in charge of shale gas development. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

A statue of Ronald Reagan in downtown Warsaw. In April of 2010, the U.S. Department of State launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative (recently renamed Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program) to “achieve greater energy security, meet environmental objectives and further U.S. economic and commercial interests.” Cooperation with Poland has been especially close. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

The old gasworks in Warsaw. Poland has one of the oldest oil-and-gas industries in the world, dating back to the mid-19 century. Today, the state-owned company PGNiG still extracts some gas and oil, but it has little experience in the development of unconventional hydrocarbons like shale gas. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

A drilling rig in northern Poland, near the village of Opalino. The extraction of shale gas – gas trapped in hard and impermeable rock called shale – involves a highly technical process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are pumped into the ground under enormous pressure to create fissures in the rock and release the gas. Poland has drilled about 30 wells so far, but only seven of them have been fracked, and assessments of the actual gas reserves are still uncertain. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

A poster announcing a public meeting on shale gas development in the municipality of Przywidz, in northern Poland. Gas companies are often accused of failing to hold public consultations with local communities prior to drilling. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Most of the potential shale gas regions are in the north and northeast of Poland. Farms and vacation homes dot the countryside. Except for the city of Gdansk, the region is still pristine and has seen little industrialization. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Edward Sawicki, 38, is an organic farmer who opposes shale gas development in the region. He fears that fracking would contaminate his water supplies. “If the water is polluted, I would have no other choice but to move out,” he says. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

An anti-fracking mural on the back of Edward Sawicki’s barn. “Stop shale gas,” one of the slogans says. “We will not surrender our land to the hands of corporations” and “Every drilled gas well is poison to our water” say the others. Sawicki asked a few visiting artists to draw the piece. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Hieronim Wiecek, 63, from the village of Niesiolowice, in northern Poland, is one of the main anti-fracking organizers. “This land is everything to me,” he says. “Now I’m old. All I want is peace and quiet and life in a clean natural environment.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Local authorities also feel helpless. Ryszard Gliwinski, the mayor of Zamosc, a town of 68,000 in southeastern Poland, complains that the central government in Warsaw failed to adequately inform Polish society about the risks and benefits of shale gas. “All political parties are rooting for shale gas, but they failed to reach out at the local level and demonstrate what exactly the benefits for us would be," he says. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Because of the high political stakes of shale gas development in Poland, anti-fracking activists have often been labeled as national traitors and Russian spies. In October 2012, Dziennik Gazeta Prawna [Daily Legal Gazette] broke the story of an anti-fracking group from Pomerania, in northern Poland, whose meetings had been spied on by a company agent. The secret report included details of conversations and personal sketches of the participants, and was later forwarded to several Polish ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which subsequently passed on the information to the Internal Security Agency (ABW) and the police. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Generally, the Polish central government has pushed for shale gas development without the proper controls and transparency. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Poland has not been active in pursuing green alternatives. Only 11 percent of Polish energy is currently produced from renewables, mostly from biomass, with a target of 15 percent by 2020. (Germany currently produces 25 percent of its energy from renewables.) With prices of solar and wind generation plummeting, renewables could in fact offer a tangible opportunity for Poland to increase its energy security. Coupled with larger investments in the regeneration of the electricity grid (the current one is old and inefficient), Poland may at long last achieve the coveted “energy revolution.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Whether shale gas would be the death or the salvation of Poland remains unclear. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Poland, 2012.

Shale gas has been lauded as “a game changer” and “an energy revolution.” The United States has been leading the way, but Poland has recently decided to follow suit. It has enthusiastically embraced shale gas exploration in the hopes of achieving energy independence from its main historical nemesis, Russia. Nearly 30 percent of the Poland’s territory has been targeted for shale gas exploration. The process, however, has been extremely politicized and mired in social and environmental controversy. This slideshow looks at some of the main issues.

This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of