Men celebrate over a destroyed makeshift well during a protest against plans by US energy major Chevron to search for shale gas in Pungesti, 340km northeast of Bucharest.
PUNGESTI, Romania: The small hilly town of Pungesti in eastern Romania could be sitting on vast reserves of shale gas and US energy major Chevron wants to find it.
But the people of Pungesti want nothing to do with it.
Though most of them live off subsistence farming, social aid and cash from relatives working abroad, they would rather stay poor than run what they say is the risk of ruining their environment.
Villagers have set up camp outside the empty lot where Chevron aims to install its first exploratory well, blocking access and forcing the company to announce last week it was suspending work.
“Our kitchens are filled with homemade jams and preserves, sacks of nuts, crates of honey and cheese, all produced by us,” said Doina Dediu, 47, a local and one of the protesters.
“We are not even that poor,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have money, but we have clean water and we are healthy and we just want to be left alone.”
The decision to stop work at Pungesti — which was to have been Romania’s first shale gas exploration well — matters because of the message it may send about how welcome shale gas is in eastern Europe.
Large parts of wealthier western Europe have shunned shale gas exploration because of fears about possible water pollution and seismic activity from the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process used to release it.
The industry says the risks can be avoided.
While Britain decided this year to support shale gas exploration, France has a total ban citing ecological concerns and Germany is reviewing its position on shale.
In poorer, ex-Communist parts of the continent the need to bring in tax revenues, cheaper fuel supplies and jobs has shown signs of trumping the concerns, but to what extent is not yet clear.
Chevron, which has all the necessary permits for the exploration well at Pungesti, says it adheres to the highest safety standards.
The exploration phase would last around five years and not involve fracking, the process whereby large amounts of water mixed with chemicals is forced into rock formations under high pressure to crack them apart and release natural gas.
Company executives met Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Monday while he was making a scheduled visit to Washington.
“Emphasis was placed on continuing activities responsibly and safely for the environment, while at the same time giving communities the chance to have a conversation grounded in scientific data,” Chevron said in a statement.
Asked to comment on local concerns, the company said it tests groundwater before and after drilling to make sure it is not affected, carries out geological seismic surveys and keeps the community informed at every stage.
In a detailed statement, it pointed to the widespread use of fracking in the US and elsewhere and said it “is a proven technology that has been used safely for more than 60 years”. But it is struggling to convince the people of Pungesti.
Three public meetings held over the summer with Chevron and environment agency officials turned into shouting matches. Deputy mayor Vasile Voina says he believes people “were not sufficiently informed”.
Sprawled along a bumpy road, the town of 3,420 people is made of eight villages with narrow houses behind short, chipped picket fences, fat orange pumpkins dotting small plots of land and apples drying in the sun behind window panes. It does not have central heating or a mains water supply. Even in this remote town, 340km northeast of the Romanian capital Bucharest, the global debate about the impact of “fracking” has permeated.
Several people said they had gone on YouTube to watch excerpts of the 2010 US documentary “Gasland,” which purported to show the environmental damage caused by shale gas production.
The energy industry disputes allegations made in the film, but it, and other sources, including activists and local clergy, have influenced opinion in Pungesti.