Fracking, “a technique used to break apart the dense shale rock, releasing the hydrocarbons (like gas and oil) contained inside”, is a controversial practice. It has sparked public opposition throughout the world and has been banned in countries such as France and Bulgaria for its potential consequences on human health and the environment. Yet some European politicians have been getting hot under the collar about fracking when politically convenient – and then forgetting all about it when it is not. Romania is a perfect illustration of such politically expedient see-sawing.
In 2011, when in opposition, current Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) proposed a draft law demanding a complete ban on fracking, complaining that no studies had been conducted and no legislative framework to regulate the technical conditions for exploring and exploiting shale gas. Yet after gaining power, the PSD-led government rejected its own previously proposed law. Entirely contradicting his previous position on fracking, in January 2013 Prime Minister Ponta emphasised that exploiting shale gas should be treated as a positive solution to increase Romania’s energy independence, since the country continued to pay the highest price for gas compared to Bulgaria, Hungary and other Eastern European countries.
While the Romanian public has amply, repeatedly and ardently opposed fracking and called into questions its government’s moves, the government does not seem interested in responding to its critiques and fulfilling its demands. This situation calls into question the extent to which popular protests can ultimately ensure government accountability, while underscoring the fact that officials might prefer to pursue economic interests at the expense of their voters’ desires, their health and the environment.
In March 2013, Ponta went one step further, affirming that he is in favour of authorising shale gas exploration, and exploitation under appropriate environmental standards, in what he described as an effort to ensure Romania’s energy independence from Russia. Ponta stated: “First, Romania needs to confirm its shale gas resources. We should allow preliminary exploration of the reserves, a process which could take around five years. After that, any future shale gas development should be in compliance with all European and global environmental standards.”
Yet the reality of fracking would hardly be so straightforward. Romanian law does not differentiate between conventional resources, such as coal and gas, and non-conventional resources, such as wind and solar power, and has no procedures to evaluate the impact that shale gas exploration and exploitation can have on the environment.
Despite this, not only has Romania conceded 2.2 million acres to the U.S. energy company Chevron to start exploration drilling, but in May 2013 the Romanian Environment Protection Agency issued shale gas exploration permits to Chevron for two areas situated near the Bulgarian border. These permits allow the company to conduct controlled explosions at a depth of 10 and 15 meters on an area of 1,800 square kilometers, and the company intends to create its first test wells during the second half of 2013. The Romanian government’s support for fracking was further boosted during a recent European Council Summit, when Council President Herman Van Rompuy announced “shale gas could be part of the energy mix in a number of [EU] countries”.
The Romanian population has vehemently and repeatedly protested against their government’s decision to encourage fracking. In Costinesti, one of the conceded regions, 94 percent of the population voted against fracking in a local referendum. Throughout 2012 and 2013, over 8,000 Romanian citizens have come out to protest. In April 2013, meetings and marches were held in many Romanian cities. The protesters decried the government’s lack of transparency and information on the exploration projects. In a sign of solidarity, on May 2013, Bulgarians from the city of Dobrich also organised rallies against fracking in Romania, which would have an impact on their country. In June 2013, Bulgarians crossed into Romania to join their neighbours’ protest against drilling plans. Thousands of Bulgarians themselves had led anti-fracking protests in 2011 and 2012, calling on their government to place a moratorium on fracking.
The Romanian public’s opposition to fracking is part of the global controversy surrounding the practice. The European Parliament issued a report pointing out that the chemical additives used in fracking include “toxic, allergenic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic substances”. Indeed, a popular petition, signed by almost 15,000 Romanians and demanding the banning of fracking in Romania, argues that in areas where fracking has been used the number of grave diseases, including asthma, leukemia, skin cancer and peripheral neuropathy, is sharply on the rise as a result of consuming water from exploitation areas and breathing in contaminated air. And the method of exploring shale gas is no less dangerous than that of extracting them, because advanced exploration also uses fracking, with the only difference being that of scale.
Several European countries have already rejected the practice. France was the first European country to ban fracking in 2011. In 2012, Bulgaria adopted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and immediately revoked an exploration permit previously granted to Chevron, invoking insufficient proof of the environmental safety of the practice. The Bulgarian government’s decision came partly in response to the widespread anti-fracking protests held by concerned Bulgarian citizens. Similarly, Denmark, Holland, Ireland and the Czech Republic imposed moratoriums on fracking. In the U.S., several states, such as New York, have also placed moratoriums, while Vermont has banned it altogether.
However, many state governments in the US mirror the unresponsiveness of Romania. Ohio was a site of protests with hundreds or thousands of participants, and over 100,000 Californians signed a petition urging a fracking ban. Just as in Romania, these protesters’ demands have remained unanswered by their representatives. After using Romanians’ protests against fracking to its own advantage while in opposition, the new Romanian government is now turning a deaf ear to the same public. The Romanian government, much like its US counterpart, seems to have forgotten its responsibility to respect and reflect the wishes of its population, expressed numerous times through protesting and referendum. The government has yet to realise that exploiting shale gas only postpones the needed strategic and sustainable shift to renewable energy – and thus that its greatest focus must be developing renewable energy sources for Romania.