Poland hopes shale gas drilling spurs economic growth

A gas drilling rig in Poland.

A worker at an Orlen Upstream plant in Poland.

Pavel Propava

Mikołaj Budzanowski

Jacek Winiarski

Kai Ryssdal: Just because they don't have enough controversies brewing over there, Europeans are tinkering with a new source of energy that -- here in the States, at least -- has been plenty contentious. Natural gas fracking is becoming more popular -- in Poland, in particular. It's raising the same environmental worries it has here, with a dose of geopolitics tossed in for good measure.

Christopher Werth reports.


Christopher Werth: In the far reaches of rural Poland, I meet Arkadiusz Urbanik. He's an engineer with Orlen Upstream, one of Poland's state-owned oil and gas companies. And together we climb to the top of a drilling rig that's boring a well nearly two miles into the earth.

Arkadiusz Urbanik: We have to drill 24 hours, seven days a week and 365 days a year. We cannot allow to keep this rig doing nothing.

This is just the first out of 100 wells Orlen plans to drill for shale gas. That is, tiny pockets of gas Urbanik says are trapped deep within the rock below.

Urbanik: So we have to stimulate this rock to get the proper flow to the well.

To do that, thousands of gallons of water are pumped into the ground, along with chemicals, that break the rock. It's a process called "fracking" that's sparked a shale gas bonanza in the United States. Poland could be sitting on a lot of shale gas -- as in 300 years worth of supply -- and it's become a centerpiece of its strategy for economic growth.

Mikolaj Budzanowski: The real future for the whole country is the shale gas.

That's Mikolaj Budzanowski, a deputy minister at Poland's Treasury. Behind him is a large map of the country's sprawling shale gas deposits -- many of them bought by big American companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and ConocoPhillips.

Budzanowski: I would like to stress that the Polish government right now is aspiring to become the leader of shale gas extraction for the European Union.

Turning Poland -- or so the plan goes -- into a major exporter of gas in the region. Pawel Propawa, an expert on shale gas at Poland's Geological Institute, believes it could create 100,000 new jobs across the country.

Pawel Propawa: We will certainly see billions and billions of dollars invested each year in Poland in production.

The Polish government wants to use the proceeds to fund things like public pensions.

Children playing

The dream is that children like the ones crowded around this street organ grinder in Warsaw can retire very comfortably someday. But not everyone in Poland is so eager about shale gas.

Jacek Winiarski of Greenpeace Poland says protests have erupted in some communities where drilling is underway.

Jacek Winiarski: I must tell you that we are a bit scared because the risk of water pollution together with chemicals. Look at what happened in the United States in many places.

France banned fracking earlier this year over environmental concerns. And some in the EU have proposed European-wide standards for shale gas extraction.

But Poland vows to veto any new regulations. That's because this is about more than just money. It's also about energy independence. Today, Poland buys most of its gas from Russia, an old nemesis known to turn off the tap in the dead of winter when political disputes arise. A situation Poland would like to avoid.

In Poland, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

A worker at an Orlen Upstream plant in Poland.

Pavel Propava

Mikołaj Budzanowski

Jacek Winiarski

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