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Poland dreams of becoming shale gas El Dorado

by Staff Writers
Warsaw (AFP) May 1, 2011
Poland is dreaming of becoming a European shale gas El Dorado thanks to estimates of huge deposits, which if confirmed could make it an natural gas powerhouse and free it from energy dependence on Russia.

"If early estimates are confirmed, it will be a revolution like in Norway or Great Britain after the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea," Piotr Krzywiec, a geologist at Poland's National Institute of Geology (PIG) told AFP in a recent interview. "Poland could become Europe's number one or one of its largest natural gas producers," he adds.

A recent US study, however, warned that shale gas carries a greater carbon footprint than oil, coal and conventional natural gas over at least a 20-year period due to emissions of methane -- a greenhouse gas -- in the extraction process known as "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing.

PIG expert Pawel Poprawa believes Poland has supplies of shale gas which could cover domestic needs "for the next 100, 200 or even 300 years."

Warsaw has long sought ways to guarantee its energy security and should the current flurry of prospecting produce proof of viable commercial deposits, Poland's Soviet-era master Russia would lose its status as the country's largest gas supplier.

"This is Gazprom's nightmare," Newsweek's Polish edition quipped recently of Russia's natural gas giant.

Currently, ex-communist Poland, a 2004 EU nation of 38 million people, covers 30 percent of its gas needs from domestic resources but Russian imports account for over 40 percent of consumption, with the rest coming from other countries.

Initial studies suggest the shale deposits run in a huge 650 kilometre-long (404 miles) diagonal belt across Poland, stretching from the northern Baltic Sea coast to the eastern border with Belarus and Ukraine.

Over the last two years, leading international fuel companies have descended on Poland with drilling rigs to explore the possibility of commercial extraction.

Poland has already issued nearly 90 exploration licences and the country's liberal leader, Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said he's determined to see the "exploration and exploitation of shale gas in Poland become a fact."

"If possible, we must exploit every cubic meter of shale gas," he said. However, serious environmental concerns have put the breaks on shale gas development elsewhere.

Fracking, the principle extraction method in shale gas production involves injecting massive volumes of water and chemicals into shale or sandstone deposits under high pressure to force out the gas, including methane.

A recent study by New York's Cornell University found methane emissions from shale gas extraction "carry a greater carbon footprint than oil, coal and conventional gas over at least a 20-year period."

Environmentalists also point to the risk of the chemicals used in the process contaminating ground water.

Outcry by ecologists and residents alike recently prompted the French government to cancel permits for exploration projects.

The Canadian province of Quebec also put the brakes on shale gas exploration in March pending studies on environmental impact while the eastern US state of Pennsylvania suspended extraction in April after a gas well explosion.

While the Polish government can barely contain its enthusiasm over the prospect of a large shale gas potential, Polish environmentalists remain more circumspect.

"We recommend caution when it comes to shale gas," Greenpeace Poland spokesman Jacek Winiarski told AFP.

"US experience has shown that current extraction methods for shale gas are destructive to the environment," he said.

Experts note that shale gas deposits in Poland are located at a greater depth than is the case in the United States, which could limit the risk of groundwater pollution.

And with exploratory drilling in Poland still in its early stages, experts insist it will take two to three years before the scale of shale gas deposits and their commercial viability can be accurately assessed.

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