by Elena Rastei for Resource //
One of the men holding a huge banner in front of the mayor’s office with the message ‘Chevron is the worst American dream. Wake up people!’ suddenly shouts from the bottom of his lungs: “Next time, we won’t come here with flags, but with guns!” Around him, people smile in approval. Almost 8,000 are gathered in a peaceful action to make their voices heard.
As we enter the city of Bârlad, the air changes. Our hearts beat faster, and it feels as if we are fully immersed in an historic moment. Bells are tolling continuously. The churches are calling the people to the vigil against fracking.
Chevron brings fracking to Romania
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, a controversial form of natural gas extraction, is the process of pumping water combined with chemicals underground to fracture rocks and release shale gas. According to one US campaign, up to 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins. The complete list of all the chemicals is considered a commercial secret and hasn’t been made public. The fracking fluid is then pressurised and injected into the ground through a pipeline, and the high pressure causes the surrounding shale rock to crack, creating fissures through which natural gas flows into the well.
During this process, campaigners say, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out and contaminate nearby groundwater. Not all of the fracking fluid is recovered, while the rest is left in the ground and is not biodegradable. In some locations, the recovered waste fluid is left in open-air pits to evaporate, potentially releasing harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the atmosphere. In the US, there have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage from contaminated water, according to the campaigners.
The US energy company Chevron has obtained concessions in Romania, covering a combined area of 918,636 hectares, in the Eastern plains of the Moldavia region, the Northwest area and the Black Sea coastal region – Vama Veche, Adamclisi and Costine?ti. The approvals were obtained without any proper legislation or regulations to back up the technical conditions for the exploration-exploitation activities to avoid the seismic, environmental and water pollution risks. The corporation announced its plans for exploration in Bârlad in the second part of 2013.
Today, Chevron is promising energy independence and jobs over the course of the 25-year project. However, the company will be able to export the shale gas anywhere in the world, and the price Romanians will pay for each cubic metre of gas purchased from Chevron is unknown. Contracts between Chevron and the authorities have been classified as secret.
According to The World Factbook, Romania annually imports 2,290,000,000 cubic metres of natural gas, 43 times less than Germany at 99,630,000,000, 20 times less than France at 46,200,000,000, and a bit less than our Bulgarian neighbours, who import 2,480,000,000 cubic metres of natural gas a year. Both France and Bulgaria banned fracking on account of health and environmental risks.
‘We don’t drink gas’
Back at the protest, a sea of people is covering the street. As we merge with the big crowd, I turn back, curious to see how large it is. As I look back, I see one look in everyone’s eyes, marching in the streets for the justice of their cause. The old lady walking by my side is here for her children and grandchildren. “I’m 75 and I’ll be gone soon, but if Chevron stays, my children will suffer the consequences of my passivity,” she tells me. “So, I chose to take a stand. God is with us!” On my left, a group of 7-8-year-old children make their presence noticed. “We are here to protect our land!” says Robert, who has a red whistle around his neck, while Florin, Ana and Eduardo hold banners.
An orange van with a megaphone voicing various messages leads the people to the Communal Palace of Bârlad. We occupy the central area blocking all entrances. The mayor, who before elections was in the front row, leading the first protest, was now nowhere to be seen. At one point, I spot a banner depicting the deputy of Bârlad, Adrian Solomon, depicted in a loving embrace with Chevron ‘Solomon, you betrayed us!’, the sign reads.
A strong voice shouts through a megaphone ”Hello Bârlad. Romania, wake up!” The crowd cheers.
Exchanging false promises for electoral support is common practice. It seems to have happened here in Romania with Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who changed sides radically from being a strong opponent to an enthusiastic supporter of fracking once he was installed in the ministerial chair. Industry lobbyists have been selling fracking to the government and businesses as a ‘green’ alternative to renewables since 2000, despite a general lack of research on the matter or investigation into the health and environmental impacts documented by various reports.
“Thieves!”, “Liars!” shouts the crowd, with one participant adding: “Only the pressure of the streets can make the government listen to our voice and say ‘No’ to fracking. Is this subversive action? Do you want the ‘For Sale’ sign in front of every home? And when we want to sell, who’s going to buy a place surrounded by death? Stop and think of your children!”
Later, the stage is taken by organisers and representatives from Dobruja, Bucharest, a child and an old man – all with their own messages for the government. A representative from Costinesti, the first city in EU that refused fracking in a referendum, warns that “Water poisons the whole country even if your county is not targeted by Chevron”, a statement that stirs up the crowd.
Towards the end of the protest, we start moving. Above the street, in full view, a big banner announces ’28th February, the day of the Civil Protection’, organised by the Municipality of Bârlad. According to the organisers, no local politician was present during the protest. However, people from Constanta, Cluj Napoca, Buzau, Bihor, Galati, Hunedoara, Iasi, Timisoara, Vrancea and Bucharest march along with one heart, under the sun of Bârlad.
The event ends as it started with the prayer ‘Holy Father’. People repeat it in choir. The role of the orthodox clergy is vital to this protest, as people have mainly learned about the potential dangers of fracking in their churches. One of the main organisers, Father Vasile Laiu, understands his role within the community and has stood up, in this time of hardship, to lead his people.
The right to a clean environment
In Romania, the fight for the right to a clean environment continues, as does the fight over energy security. The next event is being announced in several locations across the country, on 4 April. This is the fourth protest organised by the Group of Initiative for the Civil Society of Bârlad (Grupul de Initiativa al Societatii Civile (GISC) Barladene), formed by experts in geology and chemistry, attorneys, priests, and environmental activists in collaboration with a local non-governmental organisation called VIRA. After researching the issue, VIRA has concluded that the risks outweigh the benefits.
The national media, which missed one of the biggest social gatherings in Romanian history of the last two decades by not reporting on this protest, has argued that Russia is trying to undermine the potential energy independence of Romania by financing the environmental organisations in their fight to stop Chevron. According to official statistics, Romania imports less than a third of its energy requirements.
The people are determined to continue the protest until fracking is banned in Romania, as it has been in Bulgaria, France and some of the states of the US. Fortunately, several city councils in Vaslui County (Gherghesti, Iana, Bacani, Tutova, Pochidia si Pungesti) have already banned fracking at the request of their citizens.
Today, in Bârlad, the bell tolls for Chevron, we hope.
Elena Rastei is the Coordinator for Zero Waste Romania. You can read more about fracking on a special report in the next issue of Resource.