Last Saturday thousands of protesters took to the streets in several cities all across Bulgaria to protest against the planned extension of shale gas exploration and production in the country.
The government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov declared the production of shale gas as one of the priorities to reduce dependency from foreign sources of natural gas. The U.S. energy giant Chevron won the tender for a permit to explore possible shale gas deposits in the Novi Pazar region in northeastern Bulgaria late last year, but exploration drilling in the area has yet to begin.
Another U.S. company is one step ahead: Trans Atlantic Petroleum already has a test up and running after shale gas deposits were found near the village of Deventsi, some 125 kilometers northeast of the capital Sofia. This ‘limited’ test production has an output of 7 million cubic meters per day. The same company started exploration drilling nearby last November to tap on another deposit.
The issue that drives people out on the street is a technology called hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is a method where water and a mix of chemicals is pumped into the shale gas deposit under pressure to crack the rock and keep the cracks open, so the gas can be extracted.
The problems are caused by the so-called BTEX-chemicals (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylene) used to keep the cracks in the rock from being clogged with bacterial growth. They are all highly toxic and considered carcinogenic (causing cancer). Environmentalists claim that after the BTEX are pumped into the gas deposit a certain amount always leaks from the pipe and can contaminate the ground and thus the drinking water reserves.
On the other hand, the existing shale gas deposit near Deventsi is 4,200 meters deep, thousands of meters deeper than any ground water layer.
Neither Trans Atlantic Petroleum nor Chevron could be reached to comment on the potential problems of shale gas exploration and production.
While Bulgarians are worried that the chemicals involved in the gas extraction could pollute their drinking water sources, Prime Minister Borissov recently acquired a large plot of land in the Novi Pazar region where Chevron soon plans to start drilling.
But because of the nationwide resistance against Chevron’s plans, the government has revoked the licence this week and votes on a general ban on fracking in parliament today.
The move was welcomed by the environmentalists in Bulgaria, but prompted U.S. ambassador James Worlick to warn Bulgaria not to risk the substantial economic benefits of shale gas production. Worlick said, Bulgaria should be careful not to lose Chevron’s millions of dollars in investments and hinted that the U.S. energy giant is not depending on Bulgaria.
(All images copyright Johann Brandstätter/JB Photography)