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Shale gas fracking in Bulgaria freezes under public pressure

(By Konstantin Dichev and Dragomira Raeva)

Bulgarian people want clean water and a healthy future for their children, instead of false promises for cheap shale gas. EJOLT partner Za Zemiata on the Bulgarian struggle to stop a Russian Roulette with their groundwater.

In mid 2011 the Bulgarian Government gave Chevron a shale gas exploration permit for the Northeast region of the country. People were enthusiastic, in view of the new job opportunities and a potential natural gas price decrease, lowering costs for heating, electricity and other services. Diversification of gas supplies and diminishing Russia’s monopoly over gas supplies in Bulgaria created yet another positive expectation.

The euphoria soon gave way to a more precocious public attitude that raised questions on the technologies used in shale gas drilling. Gradually, the high risk of hydraulic fracturing[1], the related environmental degradation concerning ground water, and the negative health impacts surfaced in the public space. The technology was considered unreliable and even dangerous in an international debate on its use. In the USA every 20th hydraulic fracturing drill had an accident and resulted in serious groundwater contamination, soil and air pollution, and had negative impacts on human health. Despite the massive PR campaigns by the companies using this technology, US authorities admitted that there is a direct link between environmental contamination and shale gas extraction with hydraulic fracturing. Moreover, the technology is already banned in the UK, France, South Africa and 80 provinces in the US on the grounds that it poses a threat to national security.

Bulgaria was facing a real danger, which activated both laymen and experts. Promptly, numerous citizens groups popped up all over the country insisting on transparency and more information on the governmental plans regarding shale gas exploration. Independent experts did risk assessment studies of hydraulic fracturing, which showed that the dangers are even higher than expected. This was due to the following facts and findings:

  • The shale gas drills would be on the territory of Dobrudja and Ludogorie, a flat region known to be the main grain producing area in Bulgaria;
  • The region is poor in surface sources of drinking water; drinking water is mainly secured from groundwater sources;
  • The biggest groundwater deposit on the Balkans, practically a fresh water lake underground, is situated in the region;
  • This source of fresh water is continuous and is a dynamic system;
  • The shale gas drills would inevitably go through horizontal groundwater paths;
  • An accident in just one drill would contaminate all the water in the underground lake;
  • The technology itself carries a 5% risk according to US authorities.
  • With the four drills provisioned during the exploration phase in Dobrudja, 800 000 people would have been put at a high risk of drinking water contamination.
  • Provided hydraulic fracturing is the only effective technology for shale gas extraction, thousands of drills would have to be operating in Dobrudja with tragic effects over environmental quality.

Citizens got furious with the governmental giving a shale gas exploration permit without first carefully assessing the risk and running public consultations with experts and the society at large. Facebook became the main platform where thousand of citizens united.

Questions have been raised to the European Commission and Parliament concerning the illegal  permits issued without a mandatory EIA as requested in Directive 85/337/EEC and amended by Directive 97/11/EC. In this process it came to light that the Bulgarian Environmental Minister has performed fraud, and has acted beyond her responsibilities in the transposition of the Directive into Bulgarian law and in its interpretation. On many occasions the Minister attempted to deceive the public that such EIA is not required in the EU with false examples from France, Poland and Romania. This resulted in further legislative complaints against the Environmental Minister and the Government, in a national court and to the European Commission and Parliament.

In September 2011 the first protests took place in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and other big cities all over the country. The protest was gathering force and reached a climax in January, in a national demonstration that took place in eight municipal cities, as well as in London, Barcelona and other cities with Bulgarian ex-pats around the globe. A true media war was launched between shale gas PR experts, the government and the thousands of activists. In mid January the Bulgarian Parliament accepted the demands of the protesters and voted for a moratorium on shale gas exploration with hydraulic fracturing. The citizens’ have posed further demands: adoption of legislation that bans hydraulic fracturing in Bulgaria and the correct transposition of the EU EIA Directive that has an obligatory requirement for an EIA and risk assessment carried out by the Government before the issue of an exploration permit.

All in all this is a significant victory for the civil society in Bulgaria which stood firm behind its choice of environmentally sound development of the Dobrudja region, defended its interests, these of the environment and the future generations which have the right to productive land, clean water and healthy environment. This is a definite statement to the Bulgarian Government that decisions concerning the future of the country cannot be taken without public participation, without respecting public opinion, without defending public interests and only in favor of multinationals.

[1] Hydraulic fracturing is the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurized fluid.

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