The ‘shale gas revolution’ has been a blessing for the U.S. Industry, but when this energy miracle is exported to other countries it could end up being a curse for their people.
The McIntyres felt like they had discovered gold 20 years ago, when they moved into an area far from the city and drilled a well that yielded crystal clear and freezing cold water. Their previous home had no running water, so the remote plot of land in Woodlands, 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, nestled amidst lush trees and verdant bushes, felt like paradise.
But this turned into a nightmare in January 2011, when the family suddenly became sick. “Headaches, uncontrollable diarrhea, even my adult children were experiencing the same symptoms that we were having”, says Janet McIntyre. “My husband turned on our kitchen faucet to find that our water was foaming, spitting, and purple.”
The McIntyres suspected the recently drilled nearby gas wells, the only industry thriving in the area, for the contamination. Since then, together with a dozen other families in the Woodlands community, the McIntyre family has depended on donations of bottled water to survive, while they try to gather money for a legal battle.
More than a thousand of similar cases have popped up across the country, according to media reports. But even more landowners got rich from the hefty royalties, new jobs were created and carbon emissions decreased as natural gas replaced coal.
Meanwhile in the poorest corner of the European Union, a Romanian villager shows off his most prized possession, a water fountain with a stone cross and a portrait of Jesus.
Last spring, Dumitru Fânaru, a former councilor from the community of Vadurile, received an unexpected visit from “some Americans” who photographed his water well and gave him $40 to dig in his backyard.
“They had huge trucks which drove through all the villages around here all day, I thought we were getting occupied,” he said. “It felt like the Vietnam war.”
The U.S. company Chevron was prospecting for shale gas and if the tests are positive Fânaru could find himself with a drilling rig near his house, like the McIntyres. But, unlike the U.S., few of the benefits will reach his community or even his country.
The U.S. is becoming the largest natural gas producer in the world. It started a decade ago, when an american company invented a method to profitably extract gas trapped in rocks deep underground, by injecting a water and chemical mix.
Despite incidents of water contamination, the U.S. has embraced the hunt for this new resource as it strives to boost its economy with cheap and domestic energy.
The U.S. Government has since encouraged countries worldwide to open up their potential shale gas reserves to U.S. companies now expert in the delicate art of fracking. But the gas rush could have a dramatic impact on those countries.
A cross-border investigation — conducted by the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting — has found that U.S. and Romanian officials with ties to energy companies advocated to the Romanian Government to pursue deals that would expose Romanians to the hazards experienced in the U.S., but which would result in few benefits reaching the communities vulnerable to this controversial process.
“Romania has become a colony of Western interests”, said Ilie Șerbănescu, former Minister of Reform and one of the most vocal opponents of the contracts with Chevron. “Even if we won’t have environmental problems, we’ll earn nearly nothing from the gas under our lands.”
His point of view, often expressed on live television, is popular among Romanians.
The Romanian public is one of the most hostile to fracking in Europe (alongside France, who has banned it altogether), according to the results of a recent public consultation made by the European Commission. Fracking has sparked some of the largest protests in the country’s recent history.
Despite this, the Romanian Government is one of the most eager to open up the country’s reserves. All the major political parties support it.
“Between certain risks and energy independence, I say yes to shale gas, without knowing much about the risks”, said Traian Băsescu, President of Romania, in a recent meeting with his Facebook fans.
It all started in early 2012, when thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets and forced their Government to revoke the deals it had with U.S. energy giant Chevron. That’s how Romanians found out that their country also had shale gas agreements with Chevron.
“There is a line running from the Baltic Sea, through Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, and along that line Chevron believes there is an opportunity to discover an alternative energy source,” Tom Holst, Country Manager Chevron Romania, said in a february press conference.
According to its 2012 annual report, Chevron has acquired leases for more than 3.7 million acres in Eastern Europe and has won bids for another 2.7 million.
The largest leases were awarded by Romania--over two million acres on the Black Sea coast, home to a thriving tourist industry and a UNESCO heritage site, and in Vaslui, an impoverished area where locals need clean water from wells to support their subsistence farming.
Romania is already one of the most energy independent countries in Europe, thanks to its diverse natural resources. People are not anxious to see potentially hazardous drilling in their backyard. Unlike in the U.S., landowners in Romania do not get a share of the cash generated from the natural gas extracted from their land.
The royalties - among the lowest in the world - instead go straight to the state budget of a country still facing tough EU monitoring of its legacy of corruption at a national level.
U.S. Diplomats advocated for Chevron
The Romanian Government signed agreements with Chevron to explore and extract the shale gas after several former and acting U.S. and Romanian officials got involved — all of them supporting the deal.
In August 2010, the U.S. Department of State launched a program to promote the extraction of shale gas in other countries. It was called the “Global Shale Gas Initiative” and led by David Goldwyn, who was then State Department’s Coordinator for International Energy Affairs.
“The US State Department is seeking to export the promise and potential of shale gas to markets around the world”, wrote two spokesmen for Energy in Depth (a gas-industry group) in an editorial for Oil&Gas Financial Journal, praising State Department’s initiative.
Two years later, Goldwyn held a three-day conference in Bucharest to inform Romanian lawmakers about the benefits of shale gas. The conference was funded by Chevron, acknowledged Cory Gill, a Goldwyn representative. I tried to attend, but wasn’t allowed inside. Mr. Goldwyn told me the conference is only for lawmakers.
Goldwyn was no longer working for the State Department, but for his own firm, Goldwyn Global Strategies, that boasts an “unmatched experience working and advising policy and decision-makers, both foreign and domestic”. He held similar conferences in Bulgaria and Poland.
Mihai Saramet, a geology professor who attended the conference, said he didn’t know it was funded by Chevron. “Of course, after presenting high-tech solutions for avoiding unwanted events during the exploitation, you are tempted to say yes to shale gas,” Saramet said.
Meanwhile, Mark Gitenstein, the U.S. Ambassador in Romania at the time, was one of the most vocal public supporters of the deal with Chevron.
“The Romanian government and the Romanian people will have to decide if they want to pay five times more than Americans for natural gas,” Gitenstein said in May 2012 in an interview on Romanian National Television. Talking about shale gas extraction, he said that, although there are ‘concerns’, “we [the U.S.] have good regulations, the process is transparent and we have obtained great successes without consequences for the environment, I dare say.”
Mark Gitenstein was previously a partner in the Washington DC - based law firm Mayer Brown, which received $390,000 from Chevron for lobbying between 2005 and 2011, according to documents obtained from the U.S. Senate Office for Public Records.
Mr. Gitenstein continues to earn $36,000 per year from Mayer Brown for the rest of his life as a benefit, according to his financial disclosure form, filed prior to becoming ambassador.
In 2009, Gitenstein was about to be nominated as head of Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, but was rejected because of his lobbying background and was named instead Ambassador to Romania. “[Vice-President Joe] Biden and President Obama had first approached me about serving as the head of the Office of Legal Policy for the Department of Justice, but the trial bar wasn’t too thrilled with that, partly because of the lobbying work I’d done at Mayer Brown,” Gitenstein said in an interview for the Wall Street Journal in 2009, after becoming ambassador.
Shortly before Chevron and the Romanian National Mineral Resources Agency (NAMR) signed agreements for 30-year concessions on the Black Sea shore, Gitenstein, while serving as Ambassador, held a series of meetings with Chevron representatives and high-level Romanian officials and issued statements supporting shale gas extraction. Those statements were widely quoted by media outlets and politicians.
On March 22th 2012, while thousands of protesters were on the streets, the Government announced that it had signed the agreements.
Gitenstein has owned stock in 17 companies, including energy companies like Exxon Mobil, that has high profile operations in Romania. In March 2012, the Office of Government Ethics asked Gitenstein’s spouse, Elizabeth Gitenstein, to surrender 337 shares in Exxon Mobil, after the energy giant announced the discovery of a large natural gas deposit in the Black Sea, which it will extract in partnership with Austrian OMV-owned Romanian energy group Petrom.
The former ambassador also owns nine gas leases In Oklahoma, which earned him between $35,508 and $102,000 in 2009, according to his financial disclousure report.
In his ethics pledge, Gitenstein wrote: “I understand that a heightened prospect of a conflict of interest could exist as to companies that maintain a presence in Romania, because they may be more likely than other companies to seek official assistance from or make other contact with the Embassy. I will remain alert to the possible need for recusal where appropriate.”
“I was required by the US government to advocate for Exxon. The same thing for Chevron”, said Mr. Gitenstein in a phone interview. But the former ambassador said he doesn’t know what’s in the contract. “That contract was negotiated between Chevron and the Romanian government without my involvement, certainly.”
Chevron denied that Gitenstein lobbied the Romanian Government on its behalf. “I’m aware of no role that ambassador Gitenstein played. I’m not aware of any meeting he attended,” said Thomas Holst, Chevron’s representative, when I asked him after a conference.
Gitenstein, who ended his mandate as ambassador on December 2012, is now a board member in Fondul Proprietatea, a joint stock company established by the Romanian state, that holds shares in all the major Romanian oil, gas and power generation companies.
He also returned to Mayer Brown as “special counsel in the Government & Global Trade practice”. “Commercial opportunities abound in Romania and throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and my experience and contacts in the region can help clients capitalize on them,” he said in an announcement on the firm’s website.
Gitenstein’s advocacy is not unusual in the context of diplomacy. The U.S. Embassy in Bucharest offers a “Commercial Diplomacy” service for U.S. companies. According to export.gov, the Embassy can help companies “benefit from coordinated U.S. government engagement with the Romania government to protect U.S. business interests”, as well as “access U.S. government trade advocacy for your Romania government procurement bids”.
Shale gas was also promoted with trips in Poland and America for Romanian locals and officials, financed either by Chevron or the U.S. Government. The largest happened in March of this year, when 16 Romanian Government officials and energy company directors were invited to Texas by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency - which aims to “help companies create U.S. jobs through the export of U.S. goods and services for priority development projects in emerging economies.”
The purpose of the visit was to teach the officials about shale gas extraction and witness technical demonstrations by the American firms Chevron, Halliburton, ExxonMobil, and Cameron.
Shale gas is even mentioned in the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century between Romania and the U.S., a document which defines the relationship between the two countries. It was signed in September 2011, along with an agreement to place a U.S. missile defense system in Romania.
In addition to military goals, the partnership mentions “researching unconventional sources of energy, including shale gas”.
The former political counselor at the Romanian Embassy in Washington is now a Chevron employee. Cristina Gaginsky was a political counselor specialized in energy security at the time the partnership was signed and is now Chevron’s Government Relations Director in Romania, she said in a press conference held in February in Vaslui County.
The other shale gas-rich East-European countries a similar U.S. official involvement.
Romanian politicians switch from ban to full support
Last year, when the shale gas deal went public, the citizens from Bârlad, an impoverished town in the area where Chevron wants to start drilling, organized the first large-scale protest since the anti-communist revolution 23 years ago.
The main opposition party, the Social Liberal Union (USL), publicly supported the protest that saw 3,000 people take to the streets.
In May 2012, when Victor Ponta’s USL party came to power, the governance plan included “the immediate enforcement of a moratorium on shale gas drilling until European studies on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing are finished.”
The newly-appointed Prime Minister Ponta even received the “Promising Young Environmentalist Prize” from Green NGOs in June 2012 and gave a speech promising to reverse the previous government’s policies on environment.
However, Ponta’s position on shale gas was about to change by 180 degrees.
In July 2012, Ponta assigned U.S. General Wesley Clark (retired) as “special adviser on security and economic strategy matters”. According to statements by the Prime Minister, he and Clark were introduced in Vienna by a common friend and Clark volunteered to become a “non-paid consultant”.
Wesley Clark is a director of the U.S. energy company BNK Petroleum that has over one million acres of concessions for shale gas in Poland and is expanding its operations across Europe. “I know that shale gas has an extraordinary future in Romania,” Clark said in an interview for Romanian newspaper Adevărul. The Government did not respond to several requests for more information about Mr. Clark’s activities.
In December 2012, USL won the parliamentary elections with 60 per cent of the votes, and Ponta —who only a year earlier sought to ban fracking— dropped the moratorium and issued a new Government programme, that mentioned as a priority “the start of exploring for shale gas reserves”.
Three studies from the European Union, which the Government said it was relying for a final policy, had already been published:
The European Parliament found potential for “groundwater contamination due to uncontrolled gas or fluid flows due to blowouts or spills, leaking fracturing fluid, and uncontrolled waste water discharge”. Subsequent health and climate studies published by the European Commission again reported risks of groundwater contamination, air emissions and extensive land use.
But, immediately after the elections, the Romanian Government became one of the most pro-fracking in Europe, along with Poland. Chevron received permits for exploration wells and are expected to start drilling later this year.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in a Government meeting in May that he changed his mind because he wants Romania to be energy independent. He instructed his ministers to “go further on the right way, like the United States” and not to be influenced by anti-fracking campaigns.
Romania is already one of the most energy independent countries in Europe
“Energy independence is one of the few areas in which [Romania] can stand tall,” said Iulian Iancu, head of the Economy and Industry Commission in the Chamber of Deputies, in an interview in March.
Romania is producing around three quarters of the gas it consumes and imports the rest from Russia, at a price four times higher than in the US. The current natural gas sources will be depleted in 15-20 years, according to the National Agency for Mineral Resources. The country is in a race to find new energy sources before it has to import more from the russians, with whom they are historically distrustful.
“I’m not in a war with Russia, but I want my country to depend as little as possible on gas imports,” said Prime Minister Ponta.
Luckily, Romania still has plenty of natural resources it can use in the future. Dobrogea, the hilly region on the Black Sea shore where Chevron acquired shale gas leases, is also one of the best places in the world to set up wind farms, according to Ernst & Young’s Renewable energy country attractiveness indices reports.
170 kilometers to the east, in the Black Sea, Exxon partnered with Romanian companies to explore offshore natural gas deposits. The first results estimate one deposit to hold about 100 billion cubic meters (enough for about seven years), according to the President of Romania, and there are five more perimeters to be explored.
Romania is also pursuing alternative sources of imported gas from the Caspian Sea region, tapping into Azerbaidjan’s rich resources of hydrocarbons through the proposed liquefied natural gas corridor, AGRI.
There are no official estimates yet for the amount of shale gas available in Romania. A report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration says there could be as much as 51 trillion cubic feet of unproved technically recoverable wet shale gas. The figures comes from the best case scenario in a Romanian study. Bogdan Popescu, one of its authors, says that they only had old data to work with and, even in the best case scenario, you can only extract about a quarter of what you find.
That still amounts to many years of flowing natural gas. However, the actual gas belongs to the company, who can sell it wherever it wants, on the international market. It only has to pay between 3.5 and 13% of the money equivalent of what it extracts to the Government. The local communities get nothing.
Romania sells its resources for pocket change and the locals don’t get any share
Păltiniș is one of the poorest villages in the destitute southeastern area of the European Union. Squeezed between hills, the only way to enter is along a dirt road that ends in a forest.
At the edge of the woodland is the future site of Păltiniș 1A, one of the three exploration wells to be drilled in the second half of 2013.
But locals are clueless as to this activity.
The nearest dwelling is a half-finished adobe house, with chickens and turkeys sitting in an empty window frame. Izabela Filip, a 40-year-old woman who lives here, says that she has never heard of any gas drilling.
Her neighbors have seen it on TV, but they say no one came to ask the residents about their views on the drilling and stripping of their backyard.
“We tend our gardens and raise animals - we are happy with our natural lifestyle,” said a local resident, who introduced herself with her husband’s name, Ion Șendrea.
If this village was in the U.S., the residents might be happier about giving up what they refer to as their “natural lifestyle.” In exchange for that sacrifice, they could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties - because American law states the landowner owns all the resources beneath his property.
In Pennsylvania, landowners received over $1.2 billion in 2012, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
Romania is roughly twice the size and population of Pennsylvania and has some of the richest mineral resources in Europe, according to Ștefan Marincea, the Director of the Romanian Geological Institute.
But the royalties that the Government collected in 2012 totaled only $446 million, less than a third of what Pennsylvanian farmers got for the trouble in their backyard.
“The current system of leasing and payment of a royalty has not been proven to be advantageous. The total revenue from royalties is insignificant for the state budget,” said Gheorghe Manea, an economist who studied development strategies for the Romanian Academy.
In a country with a corruption level similar to that of Saudi Arabia, few expect that money to be put to good use.
Romania has some of the lowest royalties in Europe, according to an oil and gas tax guide published by the international accounting firm Ernst & Young. The energy companies must pay between 3.5 and 13% of the value of the gas they extract, depending on the output, plus a 16% income tax.
In the U.S., companies must pay more than double: 12.5% to 30% royalties plus 35% income tax. In Norway it’s triple: 50% resource rent tax plus 28% income tax.
Alexandru Pătruți, the former head of the Romanian Mineral Resources Agency who signed the contracts with Chevron, said that the royalties should be even lower, because the technical process of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is more complicated than a conventional operation.
“We have these small royalties because they were established at a time when all the companies were state-run, and the state didn’t care,” said Ana Otilia Nuțu, energy analyst at Bucharest-based think tank Expert Forum.
Prime-minister Ponta said he has plans to increase the royalties in 2014. But it is unclear how the 30-year contract with Chevron can be changed retroactively. Several lawyers, as well as Government employees, had mixed opinions on whether it’s possible to change the terms.
“On this level, it’s ultimately a political negotiation”, said one lawyer who asked not to be named, in fear of being associated with the Chevron contracts.
‘Shale gas revolution’ can’t be exported to Europe
While politicians and company spokesmen talk about the american dream of shale gas coming to life in Europe, official and corporate reports tell a very different story.
Differences in geology, infrastructure, population distribution and mineral rights make large-scale drilling more expensive and harder to achieve.
“The costs and financing associated with shale gas are influenced by a number of factors that prevent the North American experience from being easily replicable in Europe,” stated a 2012 report by the accounting firm KPMG.
“The implications for Europe are simply that Europe doesn't have those factors. Europe is more dependent on imported energy”, said Iain Conn, executive director of BP, in a recent forum in Brussels. “And although Europe is benefitting, if I can call it that, by cheap coal coming from the United States as a result of this, Europe's cost of energy for the economy is going to be higher than the U.S. for the foreseeable future. And I don't see an easy way to resolve that.”
A 2012 report by the European Commission about the market impact of shale gas confirmed this: “Shale gas production will not make Europe self-sufficient in natural gas. The best case scenario for shale gas development in Europe is one in which declining conventional production can be replaced and import dependence maintained at a level around 60%.”
Even in the U.S., the low price of natural gas that mesmerised Romanian leaders was not sustainable, according to industry e-mails and internal documents published by the New York Times in 2011. Some of the energy companies’ employees even complained that the price of gas has been lower than the production cost.
"We are all losing our shirts today," Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson said last year in a talk before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "We're making no money. It's all in the red."
In the late spring of 2012, when Romania signed the contracts with Chevron, the gas glut caused by the companies rushing to frack pushed the U.S. wellhead price below $2.
But it’s been growing steadily ever since and has doubled in the last year, according the the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In Poland it costs three times as much as in the US to drill for shale gas, said Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield-services provider.
The shales in Eastern Europe are proving harder to work with than Barnett and Marcellus shales in the U.S. In December last years, ExxonMobil sold its shale gas exploration concessions in Poland after its test wells failed to produce commercial quantities of gas.
When the Polish government announced plans to increase its royalties to a western rate of 40%, other companies (including Chevron) also threatened to quit, prompting the government to suspend the plan.
Despite all these drawbacks, shale gas extraction would mean less imports from Russia (which currently supplies one quarter of Europe’s natural gas) and lower prices. “I am sure (that) to have some shale gas option is a good instrument for our long-term negotiations (with) Gazprom and Russia", said EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.
Even if Europe doesn’t move forward with shale gas, competition with North American gas will cut almost 25% off the price of Russian gas, according to a report by Russia's Ministry of Economic Development.
Bulgaria and Poland already managed to negociate 15 and 20% discounts in late 2012.
"They can't bully us in the way they could before, and their weakness in the negotiations showed that," Bulgaria's former finance minister, Simeon Djankov, told the Wall Street Journal.
Shale gas exploration could also strengthen Romania’s relations with the Unites States, which Romanians value highly.
The largest business deal between the Romanian Government and an American company so far has been a controversial contract signed in 2003 with Bechtel for the construction of a 413 km highway with a price tag of 2.2 billion Euros.
The company ended up building just 13% of the highway in ten years, while the Romanian Government payed over 60% of the whole price, 1.4 billion Euros.
But Romania joined NATO the next year and became one of United States’ closest allies.
Contaminations in the U.S. point to an uncertain future for Romania’s vulnerable areas
The people in Bârlad don’t care about Russia or America, but they seem to care a great deal about their water. The town’s coat of arms features three fish on a blue background. There are 20 public fountains spewing sulphur-rich water that people consider good for their health. Their tap water comes from reservoirs miles away, which they fear could be contaminated by fracking. During their protest, a typical sign read “Don’t kill our water! Don’t kill our children!”.
Romania doesn’t have any law specifically regulating shale gas. Its politicians plainly declared that there are no risks, without ordering any local studies and ignoring those from the European Union.
“We must come up with a strategy to explain to the population that this gas poses no serious risk,” said the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, after 2012 meeting with then U.S. Ambassador Mark Gitenstein and Richard Morningstar, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy.
Extracting shale gas requires between 2,000 and 10,000 times more water than conventional gas, according to the International Energy Agency. Each well consumes 500 truckloads of water, about 15,000 cubic meters.
Water is about 99% of the fluid that is injected underground to make tiny cracks in the rock that holds the gas. The rest is a mixture of chemicals.
A report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce found that “between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
Although they represent only 1% of the fluid, this still amounts to about 150 tons of chemicals for each well.
An investigation by the National Public Radio in the U.S. in 2012 examined the records of 8,982 fracking wells in Pennsylvania and found 3,025 violations reported by the Department of Environmental Protection in a 2.5-year interval. That means one violation for every three wells.
Not all violations resulted in contaminated water. There were 143 cases of “Discharge of pollutional material to waters of the Commonwealth”, 90 cases of “Failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth”, 44 cases of “Improper casing to protect fresh groundwater” and other violations.
“The recorded violations of legal requirements amount to about 1-2 percent of all drilling permits. Many of these accidents are due to improper handling or leaking equipments”, stated a 2011 report by the European Parliament.
The land required by drilling is also a challenge: unlike conventional gas, exploiting shale gas requires a large area of tightly spaced wells to be profitable.
“Many wells must be drilled in a shale play to drain the reservoir sufficiently. In the Barnett play in the U.S., the drilling density can exceed one well per 60 acres,” states a report by 3legs Resources, an independent oil and gas company with leases in Poland.
Production in shale gas wells declines sharply over the first year. “The ultimate recovery of the gas in place surrounding a particular shale gas well can be in the order of 28-40 per cent whereas the recovery per conventional well may be as high as 60-80 per cent. With shale gas projects, a large number of relatively closely spaced wells are required to produce large enough volumes to make the plays economic,” said the report.
More than half of the country’s water resources are already contaminated, according to Romania’s National Strategy for Sustainable Development. There are 2.660 cubic meters of water available per capita each year, well below the European average of 4.000 cubic meters. Areas that rely on subsistence farming, like Bârlad, are the most vulnerable to water shortages.
The other three perimeters concessioned by Chevron lie at the shore of the Black Sea. They cover one of the top Romanian tourist destinations and are bordered by a natural protection area: “Acvatoriul litoral marin 2 Mai - Vama Veche”.
“I have great doubts that it would be a good thing on the Black Sea shore to mix the dolphins with shale gas,” said the Minister of Economy, Varujan Vosganian, in a television interview.
Romania’s energy strategy in a nutshell: «Shut up, no one will ask what you think»
The Romanian Government signed the contracts with Chevron without any public consultation and dismissed calls for debates.
The National Mineral Resources Agency denied FOIA requests regarding the contract for Bârlad and even claimed, at one point, that no agreements for shale gas even exist.
The protests were sparked by a group of sociology graduate students born in Bârlad, who heard about shale gas from their Bulgarian friends on Facebook and started a campaign, gathering support from the local church, the factory workers unions and the City Hall. Nothing on this scale has happened in Bârlad since the Romanian anti-communist revolution in 1989.
Constantin Constantinescu, the mayor of Bârlad and member of the Prime Minister’s party, was one of the organizer of the first anti-fracking rally. He put up a banner in front of the city hall and spoke in front of an exhilarated crowd of 5000:
“We say from the start “No” to the extraction of shale gas with polluting techniques, that will jeopardize the health of us and our children!”
After he won another mandate as mayor, he took down the banner and tried to ban the next protests, for “disturbing the public institutions”. The people still gathered by the thousands in front of a church or in a park.
14 villages surrounding Bârlad tried to enact bans on fracking. But the county’s Prefect asked them to cancel, because he says they don’t have the authority to decide whether or not there will be drilling.
Chevron organized a series of “town hall meetings”. At one of them, held in February, people from all over the area were denied entry by ten armed guards claiming it was an “invitation-only” event and there were not enough seats.
The conference took place in a half-empty hall, with a few village mayors in the audience, while the people waited outside, in the freezing weather.
The next town hall meetings held by Chevron nearly ended in riots.
In the village of Pungești, the people were angry because Chevron representatives insisted that they will talk only about the exploration process, not the actual fracking. Dumitru Buzatu, the president of the County Council, stepped in to calm them down.
Buzatu was also on the stage of the first protest, urging people to oppose Chevron. But, after he won the elections, he gave planning permits to Chevron and became one of its top supporters. His presence made the crowd in Pungești even more angry.
An old man, Mr. Tăbăcaru, stood up and told him:
“We should be able to vote whether we agree with this or we don’t.”