22 February 2012 by Pelle Neroth
The Poles seem to have made up with the Germans; they are still rather hostile to the Russians, who held them in a Communist grip from 1945 until 1989. It has therefore been a matter of irritation for them that, even after the collapse of the USSR and Poland's entry into the EU in 2004, they have been so dependent on natural gas from Russia for their heating needs. The coldest weather in Europe in years, with Warsaw reporting temperatures of minus 24 , has been an acute recent reminder of this dependence. Gas prices are spiking.
The dark fear that lurks inside the Polish psyche, that Russia could just close the taps, has been moderated by the knowledge that, by doing so, gas would simultaneously stop flowing to Russia's best friend in Europe, Germany. The same pipeline that supplied Poland also continued onwards to Berlin. The USSR never stopped supplying Germany even in the darkest days of the Cold War.
When the Nord Stream project opened for business last autumn, linking Germany and Russia directly via a pipeline that runs underneath the Baltic Sea, that defence weakened. Putin could now theoretically cut the pump off that went through Poland, while keeping the gas flowing to Germany through the Nord Stream pipeline - punish Poland while keeping good old Germany sweet. Radek Sikorski, Poland's fiery, Oxford-educated foreign minister, has been absolutely furious about this project. He bombastically called this new pipeline another "Molotov Ribbentrop pact", after the Nazi-Soviet deal that carved up his country in 1939.
However, that is not the whole story. While talking apocalyptically and always negatively about Nord Stream, Poland has had an ace up its sleeve. Shale gas has changed the energy equation in the United States for the past couple of years now and brought down natural gas prices by 20 per cent. The good news for the Poles is that they also have shale gas, which has been uneconomic and difficult to extract with existing technology until quite recently. Huge reserves of the stuff: over five trillion cubic metres, sufficient to make Poland energy independent for hundreds of years.
Shale gas drilling is controversial, using sand, water and chemicals to blast shale rock at high pressure and release hard-to-access natural gas. This so -called fracking technology pollutes the ground water, though, and causes subsidence, so has been controversial in western Europe - banned in France - but less so in Poland, part of whose energy supplies come from polluting brown coal extracted by Europe's largest remaining population of coal miners. Secretly, Polish leaders, who managed to avoid the financial crisis through smart policies, spoke of their country becoming the "New Norway" of the European energy scene and even exporting shale gas to countries like Ukraine, weakening Russia's sphere of influence there. Shale gas was supposed to be Poland's big break, after 300 years of misery.
Alas, there has been a bit of a holdup. Earlier this month, ExxonMobil announced that its latest drilling efforts have failed, in the Polish village of Grzebowilk. This follows the failure of three small wildcatters - Lane Energy, 3Legs Resources and BNK Petroleum - from finding anything more than small reserves in the country's north western part. The geologists know the bonanza is there; they just haven't managed to extract it.
Poland is not alone with this problem. Other, much smaller, projected reserves in Sweden and Hungary have also failed to yield to technology. A difference is that Scandinavians have invested in green energy as an alternative, unlike the Poles, some of whose policymakers are as sceptical of global warming as any American republican.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 22 February 2012 06:26 PM Energy
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