WARSAW — About a year ago, Poland lit what it calls the "Flame of Hope," the first flare to burn over a shale gas well in the country. Its photo ran as a full-page ad in Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita, Poland's leading newspapers. "Don't put out the flame of hope," the caption read, urging readers to express their support for shale gas development. In a deeply Catholic country, the religious subtext was hard to avoid: Poland was the cathedral and this huge flame was a candle of prayer -- a prayer for energy independence.
Ever since the U.S. Department of Energy's April 2011 announcement that Poland may hold enormous quantities of shale gas -- 5.3 trillion cubic meters, enough for 300 years of consumption -- hydrocarbon fever has swept the country. Even when the Polish Geological Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey reduced those figures by 90 percent in early 2012, the faith in shale remained unshaken. Nowhere else in Europe has shale gas generated so much enthusiasm among both politicians and the public. The government has already granted 111 exploration concessions on an area of 35,000 square miles, or about a third of the territory of Poland, while polls from last year suggest that 73 percent of the country's nearly 40 million people back developing shale.
Shale gas, the official narrative goes, would bring in billions of dollars in foreign investments, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, give a boost to the chemical sector, and even make Poland an exporter of natural gas, "a second Norway" in the words of the foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. But the real reason shale gas has made such a stir in Poland is buried deep in the emotional sediments of history, where Russia embodies the perpetual nemesis, the perpetrator of the greatest crimes against the Polish nation. The hope is that shale gas would reduce Poland's reliance on Russian fossil fuels, while bringing the country closer to its ally the United States, a pioneer of shale gas extraction. "After years of dependence on our large neighbor, today we can say that my generation will see the day when we will be independent in the area of natural gas and we will be setting terms," Prime Minister Donald Tusk told his compatriots when the "Flame of Hope" was first lit.
Yet Poland is relatively energy independent and already working towards more tangible solutions to diversification. Gas constitutes just 13 percent of its primary energy supply, a third coming from Polish conventional wells. The government is also trying to diversify gas routes by investing in a new liquefied natural gas terminal on the Baltic Sea, expanding gas storage facilities; reverse-flow pipelines with the Czech Republic and Germany have already been completed. In addition, there are plans to build a 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant by 2023 and double that capacity by 2030. While the push for renewables has been sluggish, as prices of solar and wind generation continue to plummet, growth in that area is starting to speed up.
Most importantly, as the world's ninth largest coal producer (and the second largest in the European Union) Poland generates about 90 percent of its electricity from domestic coal, of which it has a supply that could potentially last hundreds of years. Poland's energy import dependency is accordingly one of the lowest in the EU, according to Eurostat. The country would have to start moving away from coal to reduce its carbon emissions, but a 2011 study by Cornell University suggest that shale gas, though often advertised as cleaner, might not have significantly lower carbon footprint than coal when looking at the complete cycle of production.
None of this has deterred the Polish government, which has aggressively pushed for development, dismissing all objections, as shale gas has become a powerful ideological tool, central to Polish foreign policy. "For many years the Polish government underestimated energy policy," says Agata Hinc, an energy analyst with demosEuropa, a Polish think tank. "This has changed mostly because of shale gas. Our foreign policy was mostly about conventional security, but now it's more about creating and connecting new markets."
New markets, in this case, means markets beyond Russia: a country whose investments in Poland are increasingly unwelcome. Early this year, the Polish parliament passed a politically motivated resolution against a Russian bid for the heavily indebted Lotus Group, the country's second largest oil refiner. Then, in May, last-minute maneuvering thwarted a bid by the Russian company Acron to acquire Tarnow, a large fertilizer plant and a major consumer of gas, and the company had to settle for a minority stake. As Reuters reported in October, of 1,621 major foreign companies active in Poland, 389 are from Germany, while only five come from Russia.
Economically, energy is the last significant link between the two countries. Russia currently supplies nearly all of Poland's oil and two-thirds of its gas, or about 11 billion cubic meters per year. Poland's largest oil-and-gas company PGNiG has an expensive long-term contract with Russia's Gazprom, the world's largest supplier of natural gas. The disputes between Russia and Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, and Russia and Belarus in 2010 over gas pricing, which led to shortages in Europe, have further convinced Polish politicians that the country's energy security lies in diversification away from Russia. Shale gas, the reasoning goes, would offer if not complete independence, then at least a potential bargaining chip for lowering the price of Russian gas imports.
"Russians probably understand that the era of selling gas for whatever price they wish is over," says Piotr Wozniak, the Chief National Geologist of Poland at the Ministry of the Environment.
But the shift in Polish foreign policy -- and the focus on shale gas -- has come not only as a response to Russia, but also to prompting by the United States. In April 2010, the U.S. State Department launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative (since renamed Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program) to "achieve greater energy security, meet environmental objectives and further U.S. economic and commercial interests." The program, which aims to provide technical and regulatory assistance to selected countries, has become an administrative tool of U.S. foreign policy in the global battle over energy resources and the recalibration of political alliances. Despite the lack of a scientific consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of shale gas in the United States, the State Department has nonetheless initiated engagement programs all over the world, from Jordan to India to China; cooperation with Poland has been especially close.
Hoping to emulate the U.S. "energy revolution," Poland has come to rely on the United States to show the way. President Barack Obama, on his visit to Poland in May last year, made a special point of endorsing shale gas. After the failure of the Bush-era missile defense, a proposed antiballistic missile shield to be based in Eastern Europe, shale gas has become perhaps the most significant project in U.S.-Polish relations. And though much smaller in scale than the missile shield, both symbolize the same idea: a U.S. deterrent of Russian foreign-policy interests in Central and Eastern Europe.
Despite the project's importance, shale gas in Poland seems to be headed the way of the missile shield, which the Obama administration scrapped because of Russian objections in 2009. Difficult geology, an uncompetitive service sector, poor infrastructure, and lack of rigs have hampered development. Poland has a venerable oil and gas sector, but most of the transmission pipelines are based in the southwest, while major shale gas areas are in the northeast. Strict EU environmental laws, as well as unclear regulatory and tax frameworks have further eroded prospects. And while exploration has been going on for a few years now, only 33 wells have been drilled, with just eight of them fracked (at least 200 would have to be drilled in the exploratory stage, just to assess the actual size of reserves).
Preliminary results have not been encouraging, either: This summer, resource giant ExxonMobil withdrew from Poland after the failure of commercial gas flows, while its competitor ConocoPhillips decided not to exercise its 70 percent option in three concessions in northern Poland. Overall, costs per well have increased to $15 million, according to interviews with industry officials, roughly three times the cost in the United States.
Some, like Cezary Filipowicz, the business development manager of United Oilfield Services, a Polish shale-gas service company, have suggested that Poland should lower its expectations. "For many reasons -- resources, ecology, the areas where production is possible -- the revolution in gas supplies that happened in America will never happen in Poland. Whoever expects that we'll be an exporter of gas for the European market is dreaming," he says.
Unlike conventional gas, however, shale gas requires significantly larger number of wells and economies of scale for production to be economically viable. Without that, both industry representatives and energy analysts agree, it's hard to imagine costs coming down any time soon. Profitable, small-scale shale gas extraction is an oxymoron. Even the higher retail price of gas on the European market might not be enough to make up for production costs. Gazprom added another obstacle in October, when it significantly lowered the price of its exports to Poland, further limiting the country's financial incentives for developing shale gas. "If Polish shale gas is more expensive than the gas from Russia, then it's not viable to produce. That's the normal way of the market," says Marcin Zieba, general director of the Polish Exploration and Production Industry Organization, an umbrella association of shale gas companies.
Government officials optimistically prophesy production in a year or two, but a 2011 report from the International Energy Agency expects real development starting "no sooner than the early 2020s," in the best-case scenario. In a dynamic world, where political and economic changes occur so rapidly, that might be too long to wait. And even if production starts, there is the danger that increasing the share of gas in Poland's energy supply could lock the country in an even greater dependency on Russia, if Polish shale reserves prove short-lived.
Despite the economic and environmental realities, both politicians and the public in Poland continue to believe in the potential of the country's unconfirmed, unconventional resources. Whether the Polish government and private companies will manage to start production, or whether shale gas is just a foreign policy tool to needle Russia, boost U.S. presence in the region, and increase Polish visibility within the EU, remains unclear. The Flame of Hope, in the meantime, has begun to sputter out.