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A Trip To The Northern Province

Poland has the same kind of shale gas deposits found throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Poland’s government hopes to tap into their deposits to fulfill the country’s future energy needs but, like in the United States, it comes with a great deal of controversy. 

In the town of Klukowa Huta in northern Poland, workers move to and from a test shale drilling rig. It’s the ultimate multi-national site – the workers are from all over Europe. The company is from the Czech Republic. The technology it’s using is American. And many of the Poles interviewed during a recent trip to the country say the best reason to drill is to end Poland’s long-standing energy dependence on Russia

The workers at the rig aren’t allowed to speak with reporters; if they do, it’s to say that they can’t talk.

But just up the road, the residents of a community in the shadow of this test drilling site have a lot to say.

Maria Dawidowska is unsure what the rig is for – but she knows she dislikes the noise and traffic that are now part of her everyday life.

"Nobody wants it here, we don’t want it here, they just asked our opinion about it, they organized a meeting but they practically didn’t listen to people. But we don’t want it here," she said as she worked in her garden. 

Poland's most plentiful shale gas deposits are in the north. Eighty percent of the land in this region is covered by concessions, which means drilling companies have been given the right to explore for natural gas. While drillers know there is gas, it remains to be seen how much of it can be recovered in an economic fashion.

If shale drilling does grow into a major industry, the provincial government wants to be ready to adapt to the changes the new activity will bring.

The region’s economy currently relies on tourism. Poles keep summer and weekend homes in the countryside of the Northern provinces and along the sandy Baltic Sea beaches. The thriving port city of Gdansk anchors the region.

Malgorzata Maria Klawiter is a local government employee. Her job is to keep tabs on what the industry is doing in the region.

"They’re really trying to do their best, of course they did some mistakes, like their social dialogue was not perfectly conducted and they had some troubles," she said in an interview in her office in Gdnask. 

She says some communities might not welcome drilling because the oil and gas sector is unfamiliar to them. Klawiter has been placed in her post in part because the industry is also new to the government.

Earlier this year, Klawiter and other local officials visited the United States on a state department-sponsored trip. Southwestern Pennsylvania was one of their stops.

"Many things that happened in Pennsylvania, like the leaking of substances, this was caused by human mistake, so if we monitor something all the time, we can see, oh, something is leaking there so you can react at once," she said. 

Local attorneys have been working with international drillers to help the foreign companies maneuver the complicated Polish legal landscape.

Tomasz Dobrowolski is a partner in the Warsaw office of the Pittsburgh-headquartered law firm of K & L Gates. His specialty is energy.

"When the whole shale gas story started in the U.S. there were no rules, no specific rules, like the mining Poland, like the whole EU, there is some legal framework that the shale prospecting needs to fit in and for that reason there are various problems," he said. 

Those problems are being seen firsthand by local elected officials. Tomasz Brzoskowski is mayor of Pomerania, where test drilling was performed earlier this year. He had questions about the water that was to be used in the fracking process. When he did not get the information he started regulating the aspects of the process that he lawfully could.

"I set up certain conditions, for example, I didn’t give them the right to the permit to drill the well to obtain water and I didn’t give them the permit to connect to the water system, to the water pipe and at the moment they are bringing the water from somewhere else," he said. 

Brzoskowski still isn’t sure how he feels about shale drilling – he has concerns that the country is going ahead with testing while awaiting the results of scientific studies. And like many, he eagerly awaits the country’s hydrocarbon legislation.

In Pomerania and nearby towns, gas companies have come in and set up their rigs in the past year.

Marek Kryda, a local activist, says he doesn’t think the Polish government is strong enough right now to supervise and regulate the industry. And he doesn’t trust the press to do its job.

"Most of the media says the U.S. is proof that everything works perfectly. But they have problems explaining why the state of Vermont or the state of New York are not happy with fracking. If fracking is fully safe and we don’t need any environmental measures then why are certain countries or certain states in the U.S. or Canada not willing to allow it?" he asked.

Kryda says Poles are afraid to speak up because of their history.

"We were controlled by foreign powers…Germans, Austrians, then during World War II came Hitler, then after Hitler, Stalin and communism. So Poland people were always in situation where it was risky to say what you really think. Afraid to talk and they don’t want to say something just in case. To be sure nothing will happen just in case we say too much," he said. 

He says he sees the gas industry as just another Big Brother. A Big Brother that some might welcome at first but will ultimately become their enemy.

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.