Going without insurance is described as "going naked" in insurance industry lingo. Going without insurance for the worst hazards in the nuclear power industry is business as usual.
One need not look back very far to see the problem. In March 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, triggered by an earthquake followed by a tsunami that overwhelmed all of Japan's safeguards, melted down three reactors, displaced 160,000 people and caused an estimated $250 billion in damages and other still-unfolding economic consequences.
Today, in the United States, we have 104 operating nuclear plants producing electricity. The owners, operators, and government regulators who oversee them say an event like Fukushima will not happen here. And even if it did, they insist, there is enough liability insurance in place to cover the damages. The actual amount of that insurance coverage: just $12.6 billion.
You don't need an advanced degree in calculus or risk analysis to see that something doesn't add up, and to start feeling a bit...naked. But when it comes to nuclear insurance, naked is the fashion designed for the American public.
A catastrophic accident in the US could cost way more than $12.6 billion. A worst-case scenario study in 1997 by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a major accident could cost $566 billion in damages and cause 143,000 possible deaths. Another such study, by Sandia National Laboratories in 1982, calculated the possible costs at $314 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would put both estimates close to the trillion dollar range today. So $12.6 billion wouldn't cover much.
After Fukushima, which was only the second worst such accident behind the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its staff scrambled to reappraise the adequacy of their own safety regimens for nuclear power plants. And they re-examined the sufficiency of the limited insurance available to indemnify the American people against property damage, loss of life and other economic consequences of nuclear accidents. Then the NRC hastened to publish the "lessons learned" from the Japanese catastrophe to show they were on top of things. Though the previously existing US system had been described as virtually fail-safe, federal regulators found that improvements were possible after all and ordered that they be made.
But one not so small thing remained unchanged, post-Fukushima: the tightly capped insurance system. Of course, raising the amount of insurance required to operate nuclear plants would be expensive. The nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of all of the country's electrical power, is not eager to incur additional expenses like higher insurance premiums for more coverage. Oh, but the nuclear power industry doesn't actually pay premiums on most of the insurance coverage that supposedly is available (more about that later.)
First, a little history. After solving the scientific and technological issues of splitting the atom, the biggest problem the nuclear industry faced in its infancy was obtaining accident insurance coverage. Without insurance, investors were unwilling to provide start-up capital. But the insurance industry was nervous. After all, this was back in the 1950s, and who knew then how safe -- or dangerous -- this new power source might turn out to be? So insurers were refusing to assume unlimited levels of liability.
But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was determined to develop "Atoms for Peace," and he worked with a cooperative Congress to remove all roadblocks. Their solution to the insurance obstacle was a new federal law, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which simply imposed federally-decreed limits on liability from accidents at non-military nuclear facilities. The law, amended several times since then, allowed the creation of insurance pools to cover accidents. Today the plan has two tiers. The first tier is a $375 million insurance policy for which each nuclear plant must pay premiums ranging between $500,000 and $2 million a year, depending on plant size and other factors. If a plant has an accident and $375 million is not sufficient to cover resulting damages the second tier kicks in and all the other plant operators around the country must chip in up to $111 million each to indemnify victims until the $12.6 billion cap is reached.
By the way, if you live near a nuclear plant, or even many miles away, you cannot buy your own private insurance policy to protect your home against nuclear accidents, thanks to the Price-Anderson law.
The nuclear industry and the insurance industry both understood the hard realities of the risk. In testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 24, 2001, John L. Quattrocchi, then senior vice president for underwriting at the American Nuclear Insurers pool, put it bluntly: "The simple fact is there is always a limit on liability -- that limit equal to the assets of the company at fault."
Meanwhile, corporations that own nuclear plants have devised spin-off schemes, erecting legal firewalls to protect the parent company if their limited-liability subsidiary actually operating the plant goes under as the result of an accident.
Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979. Victor Gilinsky was the senior sitting member on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when that accident happened. According to Gilinsky, now retired, "There is no insurance for an extreme event."
Now, as scientists warn of climate change, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and a host of other environmental threats related to global warming it might not be unreasonable to re-examine protections afforded the public. Small-scale accidents at nuclear plants continue to happen. A big one, like Fukushima or worse, may have a low probability level. But it isn't impossible.
True, nuclear plants contribute little or no greenhouse gas emissions to the overburdened atmosphere compared to the coal-fired plants that add so much to global warming. But there is another factor to consider when weighing the nuclear option. Originally licensed for 40 years of operational life, most US nuclear plants are approaching or have already exceeded that period. So far, 73 such plants have been given 20-year extensions, and with retrofitting and extensive upgrades, some are expected to function to an age of 80 years. Lets all keep our fingers crossed.
Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus. He has a distinguished career as a daily print journalist. From 1969 till his retirement in 2005, was a correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper group, which included 30 daily newspapers. He covered the US Congress for 15 years and then the White House for 16 years, wrote a weekly political column and covered national politics and public policy.
When Sheila Russell decided to move back to her ancestral home in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, she wanted to start a new life. A seventh-generation Russell, whose family had settled the land in 1796, the last year of George Washington’s presidency, she left her corporate job at a catalog company to do what she loved best: farming.
There was only one problem: shale gas. As luck would have it, the Russell farm happened to sit on top of the Marcellus shale, a large underground formation rich in natural gas. In 2010, just as Ms. Russell was embarking on her new career in organic farming, Chesapeake Energy drilled two shale-gas wells across the road, less a thousand feet from the farm.
Although not worried at first and even hopeful that future royalties from the gas may help her expand her business, Ms. Russell soon found herself in a nightmare, when she discovered that one of the wells on her property had been leaking methane gas into the ground, due to a faulty casing, for over a year.
Today, Sheila Russell has stopped drinking the water from her private well and even refuses to water her produce with it, preferring instead a nearby spring-fed pond. Water tests have shown elevated levels of methane and metals, still within state norms, but she does not want to take any chances.
"It's a concern for me, it's a concern for my customers," she says. "We all thought [the gas] was a lot of money coming and that it was safe. And it’s neither safe, nor a money-maker. Do I stay on this seventh-generation farm and keep it going? I don’t know."
Sheila Russell's case is hardly an exception. Bradford County, a bucolic region in northern Pennsylvania full of woodlands, rolling hills, and pastures dotted by red barns and hay bales, with a population of just 63,000 people, has been undergoing a massive industrial transformation for the past few years, as both American and international companies have joined the rush for gas.
This is not the first natural-resource boom in Bradford County. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coal mining and logging were big economic drivers -- until the coal ran out and the hills were hills were stripped bare -- but the shale gas may prove to be the biggest industry yet.
About 2,000 shale-gas wells have been drilled and permitted in the county so far, making it the most heavily drilled region in Pennsylvania and the Marcellus as a whole. And while the economic benefits for companies, larger leaseholders, and some local businesses have been significant, the gas rush threatens to undermine the venerable farming and dairy operations in the area, while creating a host of environmental and social problems.
The changes are hard to ignore. From a sleepy Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Towanda, the county's seat, has metamorphosed into a real boomtown, with industry trucks and large pickups jamming the single main street. Crime has gone up by about 40 percent, while rents and food prices have skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, new restaurants and hotels have sprung up along the river valley to service the rig and pipeline workers, many of them coming here from as far as Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.
Since 2008, when drilling for shale gas began in the county, revenues from sales tax have jumped up 61 percent, while unemployment has hovered at around six percent, lower than the national average. So far, local landowners have received $160 million in leases, which have boosted spending, as well as the county's tax base.
"The shale gas industry has had a very positive economic impact on the region" says Anthony Ventello, the executive director of Progress Authority, the local chamber of commerce, pointing out that the gas industry continues to bring in new investments. A new 800 MW gas-fired power plant, worth between 600 and 800 million dollars, has been already planned, while other, smaller gas-related projects are soon to follow.
"We're looking to create a value-added economy and not just ship natural gas out of here like a third-world country," he says.
Yet, behind the upbeat statistics, a darker side lurks. Blowouts, toxic spills, water contamination, and gas migration have accompanied development.
Chesapeake Energy, the company with the most substantial presence, was fined $900,000 -- the largest environmental fine in the state’s history -- for allowing gas migration to contaminate the water of 16 families in the county in 2010. Later, a blowout of one of the company’s wells caused large amounts of "produced water" -- liquid waste associated with shale gas extraction -- to spill into Towanda creek. In Bradford County, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, overall there have been more than 600 violations so far.
Most often, accidents occur due to faulty casing and cementing, with gas and a variety of dangerous metals migrating into the water table. The industry calculates that six percent of all new wells have some kind of casing or cementing problem, but in reality that percentage could be much higher.
Carol French, a long-time dairy farmer, experienced the adverse consequences of shale-gas drilling first hand, when her well water turned white and murky in 2011. Soon, her whole family started having skin rashes, while her 24-year old daughter fell extremely ill with intestinal, liver and spleen problems (she quickly improved when she moved away from the farm). Meanwhile, the family's cattle began suffering from skin rashes and breeding issues.
"I got to see my farm lose 90 percent of its property value," she says. “I’m losing my milk market and probably I won’t be able to sell my cows. The gas industry had negatively impacted our health, our water, our business, our society."
Mrs. French has made the conscious decision to keep her dairy operation going, despite the fact that there are about 340 shale-gas wells within a ten-mile radius of her farm. Many of her neighbors, on the other hand, have simply opted to take the money from their gas leases and sell their dairy herds. Out of about 12 dairy farmers in the immediate vicinity, only three have kept their farms running, according to Mrs. French's estimates. Even the local milk hauler has gone on to work as a truck driver for the shale-gas industry.
Another serious impact has been the fragmentation of farmland by the wells pads, compressor stations, and the thousands of miles of pipelines already crisscrossing the hills or currently under construction.
Certainly, there are other factors contributing to the decline of dairy farms in Bradford County, beyond the gas industry. Low milk prices and expensive feed have kept the business on the edge of survival for years and many have seen the windfall from gas leases and royalties as the perfect exit.
The choice was clear for Howard Keir, a neighbor of Carol French. After leasing the mineral rights of his property to Chesapeake Energy, he immediately sold off his dairy herd. He believes shale-gas extraction is generally safe and today has three wells on his property, out of which he soon expects to receive royalties.
"With the price of milk going mostly down, farmers were going out of business anyway, so you can’t blame it all on the industry," he says.
Anthony Ventello, of the chamber of commerce, agrees. "Don’t get me wrong, but farming is doomed, no matter what you do. It has to do with milk prices mostly. Yes, things will change, but I don’t see that as a danger."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some farmers use the proceeds from gas exploration to upgrade their operations, but the general trend has been in the opposite direction.
A 2012 study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences draws a direct correlation between the decline of cow numbers and dairy production in areas with higher drilling activity. Between 2007 and 2010, in counties with 150 or more gas wells cow numbers have decreased by 18.7 percent on average, compared to only 1.2 percent decrease in counties with no Marcellus wells. In Bradford County the decline has been 18.8 percent for that time period.
Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and a co-author of the study, sees a danger for the entire dairy industry in the region if the decline continues.
"If the number of farms and agricultural activity fall too low, these essential supporting businesses [like feed stores, large animal veterinarians, machinery dealers, and agricultural processors] will leave or quit, making it difficult for remaining farmers to access needed inputs and markets and thus remain in business," he writes.
If such domino effect takes place and farming and dairy production in Bradford County collapse along with the entire supply chain, even the large financial inflow from the shale gas industry might not be able to make up for the difference.
A law that came into effect last year in Pennsylvania, Act 13, tries to mitigate some of the negative effects of shale gas drilling by providing an impact fee. In 2012, Bradford County received $8.2 million with another $6.8 million projected for 2013.
"It's a chunk of change that Bradford County never had before," says Mark Smith, one of the county commissioners. "Is it enough? I don't think we know that answer yet."
Without a doubt shale gas has made a serious contribution to the economy of Bradford County and Pennsylvania as a whole, yet risking a sustainable industry like farming for an unsustainable one like fossil-fuel extraction may prove too expensive in the end.
Already a bust is on the horizon: drilling in the county has seen a substantial decline, from 408 shale-gas wells drilled in 2011 to 149 well through November of 2012, due to low gas prices. The construction of thousands of miles of pipeline continues in preparation for the new boom when prices pick up, but it is far from certain whether farming in the area could recover so easily.
"The story is always different at the kitchen table where they come to sign you on than it is out in the field," says Bruce Kennedy, a long-time farmer whose family roots in Pennsylvania go back 200 years. In 2011, three accidents related to shale gas extraction happened on his property, including a large diesel spill.
"My grandfather always taught me to leave a place better than you found it. I don’t mind people going after the gas, but it doesn't entitle them to abuse the place. You have to be a good steward of the land."
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page.
Poland is about to open its doors to an unprecedented gas boom. But with multinational energy companies circling and controversial hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- about to begin, people and the environment are in the firing line. Andrew Wasley reports from Gdansk, Northern Poland, for Link TV and The Ecologist.
Chris Faulkner is an oil man. From Dallas, Texas. And his company, Breitling Oil and Gas, is a major player in the burgeoning shale gas sector.
Faulkner is in London to give a presentation on whether Europe is the next shale gas hotspot, and to ask whether -- if so -- it has the necessary infrastructure to cope with a US style 'dash for gas'.
But he's also here to explain how the controversial process for extracting underground shale gas reserves -- hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' as it has become known -- can be green.
Contrary to the myths spread by environmentalists and parts of the media, the oil man contends, injecting -- at high pressure -- a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to release gas reserves is not in itself bad for the environment.
Instead, Faulkner believes, the oil and gas industry has done a poor job in marketing itself and in managing its public relations. This has, he argues, enabled others to speak for the industry, to capture the media agenda, and to spread alarm.
"The image of lighting your water faucet on fire [a key sequence in the anti-fracking film Gasland] has become the viewpoint or the image of fracking around the world. Now the reality is the media loves sensationalism and that has now transcended the entire scientific evidence that says that fracking is safe," he says.
The Breitling CEO does acknowledge that fracking has impacts. But he claims to have developed a programme -- Envirofrac -- to evaluate environmentally safe fracking procedures, thus helping to combat the problem.
"Fracking can be green. The environmental impacts of fracking can be effectively curtailed through a combination of technology innovation and smart regulation," Faulkner says in the press release sent out ahead of his London visit.
"The focus must be on water conservation, earth preservation, and air quality monitoring."
But these are not terms environmentalists normally associate with fracking.
In the US, the issue has become a key battleground between green campaigners and the energy industry. One of the biggest -- and most bitter -- such scraps of recent years in fact.
Advocates say fracking is safe (for people and the environment), secures a domestic gas resource to help boost energy security, provides jobs, and helps bring prosperity to sometimes impoverished communities.
Critics say fracking is dangerous (for people and the environment), unnecessary, and the latest example of corporate America trampling over the rights of ordinary people.
They argue -- supported by a growing body of evidence, it seems -- that fracking involves an unacceptable level of water usage, contaminates water supplies and spills potentially toxic waste fluids into the environment.
They also say the process uses an unsavoury mix of chemicals -- including known carcinogens -- and is a cause of air pollution, traffic congestion, noise, and a host of other problems.
Campaigners fear too that the shale gas boom will divert attention away from the search for alternatives to fossil fuels, thus potentially derailing efforts to tackle climate change.
Most recently, media reports have linked fracking to illnesses in livestock in a number of US states, including Pennsylvania, raising fears about food safety.
Phamplets and brochures and slick talk
Thousands of miles from Pennsylvania, in a tiny hamlet called Ogonki, in an area of northern Poland known as Kashubia, it is reports such as this which worry Edward Sawicki.
Sawicki is a farmer. A small scale organic producer with less than a dozen cows.
His farm sits in a picturesque, rural area of rolling hills, pristine woodland and winding country lanes.
The fields and forests give way occasionally to tiny villages, farms, and manicured churches. The kind of place where shops don't open on Sundays.
Kashubia isn't officially independent from the rest of Poland, but many of its inhabitants would like to think it is, with their own dialect, flag and fiercely independent spirit. It's where some Poles take their vacation. The area has many summer houses and lakes, used for swimming or fishing.
Sawicki is worried because the ground underneath him contains shale gas, and gas companies want to drill for it.
In late 2011, industry representatives began visiting inhabitants in the region, Sawicki says, trying to secure permission to carry out geological surveys.
The gas men came armed with pamphlets and brochures and slick talk, trying to persuade people that fracking was safe.
But whilst some farmers in the region were quick to allow access to their land, Sawicki refused, worried by what he had read.
"I mean, the first threat when it comes to hydraulic fracturing and numerous drillings regards our water, what will be done to test our drinking water..,? the farmer asks.
"Secondly, how the air that we breathe is going to be treated, I mean, how the gas is going to be treated, the remains from the mining, not, as the government says green gas, but all the mess that will stay here."
Keen to illustrate what he believes is at stake, Sawicki takes us down through the freezing fields to the shoreline of a healthy-looking lake.
There's lots of trees and greenery all around, and some log cabins nearby, some wild birds floating on the water -- the sort of place in summer where you could idle away an afternoon.
"I am the owner of this land, here, in this direction and that," he asserts. "The forest and meadows belong to me. My property border is at the lake that is behind me. The lake is quite big, it stretches for 7 km. One of the fishermen I know fishes here in the lake, so it is still quite clean.
"My fear is that oil stains may appear on the surface if some trucks that carry chemical stuff... [lose their] content deliberately in our forests or in our watercourses here, and the lake might disappear altogether."
Back at the farmhouse, Sawicki tells us his opposition to the exploratory drilling has come at a price.
"It all started when seismic companies, the ones who have been commissioned by the [gas] exploitation companies, started [to] intrude on us last year... and it was not only intrusion, it was harassment and terrorising, threatening with expropriation, financial fines, different things."
He says no more -- it is too complicated to go into any detail, he explains -- but our interpreter later tells us there's been phone calls and threats.
Sawicki shows us an anti-fracking mural he's had painted on the side of a barn.
Although it cannot have been seen by many people in person -- Ogonki is isolated, with few, if any, folk passing through -- the mural has been filmed and photographed by all the visiting journalists here.
The painting, via this unexpected route, has thus reached thousands, perhaps millions.
Jobs and prosperity
There should be lots of people living in Kashubia, and indeed across Poland, worried like Edward Sawicki.
But Poland has embraced the US 'dash for gas', and its own shale gas potential, in an enthusiastic manner not seen elsewhere in Europe.
Both the authorities and, according to some polls, a significant portion of the public, are in favour of gas development. They hanker after the promised foreign investment, the jobs, and the prosperity which will follow -- it is claimed -- the expected gas boom.
The country is certainly sitting on a vast shale gas reserve -- initial figures put this at over 5 trillion cubic meters, later massively downgraded but huge all the same -- and the government knows it is valuable.
So far, just over a hundred exploratory concessions have been awarded to energy firms (both Polish ventures and joint Polish-overseas partnerships) to drill and help ascertain for certain just how much gas is available -- and where.
Officials have carved up vast swathes of the countryside and made it available to the circling prospectors.
Exploratory drilling has not yet begun at the majority of sites however. Legislation expected to be finalised later this year will provide the necessary framework for full scale extraction to begin -- the "green light" for the gas rush as it is being seen by some.
The government wants laws in place to tackle the thorny issues of environmental protection and taxation, particularly after several EU reports warned of the potential risks associated with fracking.
Breitling Oil and Gas has recently explored potential investments in Poland's shale gas sector. Although Chris Faulkner says the future "looks bright," he is cautious about whether the country is yet ready, believing it to only have a "very rudimentary" framework in place.
"Poland and other countries need to build a regulation framework that we know as oil and gas companies," he says.
"What are the requirements to go into Poland and drill a gas well and frack it? What are the permitting requirements? What are the assessments? The environmental assessment requirements? What are the emergency assessments if we were to have a spill or if some kind of issue happens, you know, what are those procedures?"
A growing body of green campaigners, including big guns from Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth, are gathering in opposition too. They downplay the assertion that Poland will benefit, economically or otherwise, and point to the environmental red flags being waved from across the water in the US.
"Despite the Polish government's glossy propaganda Polish people have not bought the alleged benefits of shale gas and, like the rest of Europe, are rightly sceptical about the benefits the gas industry claims it will bring," Antoine Simon, from Friends of the Earth Europe, says.
"The European Parliament and European Commission recently questioned the European dash for gas and highlighted the numerous high risks associated with the extraction of shale gas. Concerned communities in Poland and across Europe are taking action against this dangerous experiment on health and the environment."
Livelihoods and future under threat
In the village of Nowy Dwor Bratianski, deep in the bleak Polish countryside a long, twisty drive from the city of Gdansk, Barbara Grzybowska and Mieczyslaw Rutowski have found themselves on the sharp edge of the country's looming gas boom.
Like Edward Sawicki, they are farmers, and worry how the arrival of an exploratory drilling rig nearby will affect their environment, particularly if water usage surges.
"If it turns out that there is [a] shortage in water supply, our animal farming, our existence is really in danger," says Rutowski, looking out across the hillside.
They explain in passionate detail how they sow crops at certain times of the year to maximise retention of valuable water resources, and ensure the best output from the unforgiving soil.
These are people who know the land and its natural cycle, and fear that meddling by outsiders could damage, irrevocably, their livelihoods and future.
What has alarmed the farmers most however is just how little information they say they have been given about the drilling.
"We, the local residents are not a party in this deal. We haven't been informed at all about the planned construction... even on the village bulletin board where all ads are customarily published there was no information about building the drilling rigs," says Rutowski. "There was some information about construction of the access road but it was not stated that there will be a drilling rig."
The farmers accuse the local authorities -- as well as the gas company involved -- of effectively steamrollering the development through by allowing just two weeks for objections to be filed. Even then, only two people directly backing onto the gas rig were officially entitled to register objections, the farmers claim. Neither did.
Not everyone in the region shares their views, as the farmers admit, but they say this is only because the facts have not been disseminated. Those that are aware are against the drilling, they say. But any information has had to come from the Internet. Or scattered public meetings.
In the village of Niesiolowice, in Kashubia, Hieronim Wicek, a community leader, tells a similar tale.
He says that in 2011, when the community learnt that exploratory drilling was earmarked to begin, residents were forced to look towards the western media for details on the possible impacts.
"We found out... that hydraulic fracturing is not so good, that leakage to the ground water may appear after some time," says Wicek. "We saw it in Gasland, in Pennsylvania, and [learnt that] it is not so good neither for the natural environment nor for people."
Wicek acknowledges that there was a public meeting addressed by gas company representatives, but claims a video presentation showed a one sided view of fracking, with pipes being "cemented [and stating] that there is no way any liquid could leak through and pose a hazard to the ground waters."
"They said it [Gasland] was a PR film and it is not true and we should not take it into consideration," he says.
But the gas industry rejects the complaints that communities have been misinformed or ignored.
"I've been to Poland, I've attended meetings in villages where oil and gas companies [...] have sat with people and explained to them what is happening, what the process is, and how it's going to impact the community," says Chris Faulkner.
"I don't believe that every single person is being left in the dark; some folks feel like that but the information is being disseminated."
A passing Niesiolowice resident offers a slightly different perspective, saying she isn't opposed to gas, but is opposed to the method being used to get it. "Surely, gas is needed but should the price be paid by nature and people who live here?” she tells us.
Asked whether the local authorities will protect the community from the the gas rush, she is unequivocal: "No, on the contrary, the authorities are for [gas]. Unfortunately they have coins in their eyes. Money rules nowadays and it is overwhelming."
Small features in a big landscape
Without seeing a gas drilling rig -- or 'frack pad' as they are often known -- close up it's difficult to picture quite what having one in your back yard would feel like.
Visit a disused one (during exploratory drilling the life cycle for frack pads is short, perhaps three months) and you'd probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
A levelled off, concrete flooring. A fence surrounding a sealed hole where the drilling took place. The odd bit of piping, some bricks. Plastic fittings that could have come from any building site.
Visit an active one and its a starkly different story, particularly at night.
A vast crane-like machine periodically sliding up and down deep into the earth. It looks like a fairground ride from the future.
Floodlights. A checkpoint. Keep out signs. Security men with crackling walkie talkies. Workers in hard hats. The constant roar of trucks. Unmarked lorries fitted with cylindrical containers holding who knows what liquid.
At one site, an open gas flare shoots flames high into the sky. Nearby, a vast man-made lagoon foams water -- and what else?
In the pamphlets and brochures distributed by the gas men it doesn't look like this. There, the frack pads are usually photographed from above, the drilling sites neatly fitting into the patchwork of fields and forests -- just a small feature in a big landscape.
It has been reported that each exploratory drilling well in Poland costs its operators some $10 million. Not much of that finds its way to those on whose land the drilling takes place.
One farmer we meet claims he was approached by a company wanting to build a road across his land. This road, it turned out, was to carry the heavy traffic required to construct a major gas drilling site.
Although the farmer declines to be specific, he says he receives around 200 Euros a month as part of a year-long contract leasing almost 5 hectares of farmland to the gas company.
He's not worried, although says the terms of the contract mean he can't change his mind about allowing the exploration, even if he wants to. The gas firm can pull out at any time.
The farmer tells us he isn't aware of any issues surrounding water usage, and seems unconcerned about any environmental issues linked to fracking. He has his own well right here on the farm.
A toxic threat
Dr Wlodzimierz Zgoda, an eminent chemist from the University of Gdansk, has been monitoring the Polish gas debate as it has unfolded, and has deep concerns about the scale of development.
"The greatest threat, which people do not realise and treat lightly, is that only one [gas] well is shown to them. [If shale gas] is found, there are going to be many wells, so many it is hard to imagine," he says.
"It is said, five, ten or 15,000 wells over ten years [could come], plus a huge movement of [an] entire fleet of trucks, cisterns, huge amounts of water, pipelines that will be built, gas treatment plants, gas tanks... it will become a mining landscape."
The chemist also says that that the arrival of fracking could in fact damage parts of the economy. "People, certainly, will experience loss, especially those who [have] invested in tourism, and [the potential] threat of spills or pollution of the environment will discourage buyers from buying agricultural produce."
He's worried too about what chemicals will actually be used in the fracking process.
In the US, it is this issue that has proved among the most controversial. The gas industry is quick to point out that only a small percentage of the frack fluid being pumped into the ground -- less than 1 per cent overall -- consists of chemicals, and consistently plays down the use of toxic substances.
But environmental campaigners reel off an alarming sounding list of additives they say are added to frack fluid, including some linked to cancer.
They say that kerosene and diesel fuel, which can contain benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene -- and other substances -- are reportedly used, as are methanol and formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, among many others.
Lead, crystalline silica and naphthalene have also been cited as ingredients in frack fluid.
And even if the percentages used are small, say critics, with so many drillings taking place -- in Pennsylvania alone, government estimates have predicted that 3,000-4,000 new gas wells will be drilled each year for the next 30 years -- the total chemical count is dangerously high.
Campaigners also point out that it could only take a relatively small amount of chemical to pollute a much larger area of land or water.
Although there is -- as yet -- little evidence of any contamination connected to Poland's exploratory gas drilling, activists say it is only a matter of time.
"Fracking is a dangerous American export that should be viewed critically by countries just starting to engage in the practice," Wenonah Hauter, the head of Food and Water Watch, recently warned.
"Modern drilling and fracking have caused widespread environmental and public health problems, as well as posed serious, long-term risks to vital water resources... while the oil and gas industry is profiting off of this technology, it has been a disaster for Americans exposed to its pollution."
But for Breitling's Chris Faulkner such comments are part of the sensationalism he says has developed around fracking.
He accuses campaigners of having an agenda which is "sometimes based on misinformation, misinterpretation, misspoke concerns," and says that their passion "sometimes weaves a story that maybe is based on fear mongering or actual non-fact."
But he admits there are risks -- as with any energy mechanism: "It's not fracking that is unsafe. It's not the procedures that are unsafe, but if someone makes a mistake, anything can happen," he says.
"We're foolish to think that there's some form of energy... that pops out of the ground, powers the plug in the wall and produces energy that has no consequences. [That's] just not realistic."
Winning hearts and minds
Back in Nowy Dwor Bratianski, Barbara Grzybowska and Mieczyslaw Rutowski want to tell us about one additional concern they have.
The farmers say that in order to help win hearts and minds in this deeply religious community the gas industry brought in a local priest. He in turn, they claim, 'blessed' a gas rig during an opening ceremony attended by local people.
"Yes, I was surprised," says Rutowski. "The parish priest came to bless the work... I smile at this and rather consider it to be a pact with the devil, not [a] blessing of the rig site."
Dr Zgoda says he has noted a wider marketing drive being undertaken by the gas companies to sway local communities.
"It is standard for them [gas companies] to be giving out small gifts, inexpensive ones, to schools, to kindergartens... municipal councils and mayors are taken on tours supposedly to show them some drilling sites, plus there are some attractions such as dinners with performances and champagne."
We track down the priest understood to be involved in the 'blessing' of the rig.
Unwilling to be interviewed formally, he admits his involvement but denies there were any strings attached. No donations or gifts from the gas company to the church. Just a small sum for children, he says, who were about to go to a summer camp.
Andrew Wasley is a UK-based investigative journalist specializing in the environment and consumer affairs. He was editor of the Ecologist magazine between 2010 and 2012, is a co-founder of the Ecologist Film Unit and a director of the ethical research agency Ecostorm. He regularly reports from Link TV's Earth Focus program.
To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page, and watch this Earth Focus report about the dash for gas in Poland, a program supported by Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth Europe.
Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) extraction is the spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG). But if we adopt these wholesale we could close off any hope of stepping back from the climate change brink, says UK campaign group Frack Off.
The earthquakes caused by the first attempt to frack a shale gas well in the UK, almost two years ago, were a wake up call that has implications far beyond the damage caused to Cuadrilla's well-bore. When your plan for getting gas is fracturing rock two miles under the Lancashire countryside, you know the cheap and easy energy is long gone.
The signs have been there for many years, from oil rigs pushing out into deeper and deeper water to the vast tar sands mining operations in Alberta, getting energy is taking increasing amounts of effort. People have been slow to connect the dots but now with the exploitation of unconventional gas threatening to spread thousands of wells, pipelines and other industrial infrastructure across the country, the issue of this relentless rise in energy extraction effort is finally beginning to get the attention that it deserves.
Like yeast growing in a vat, the fundamental question has always been whether industrial society will be poisoned by it's own waste (alcohol in the case of yeast) before it runs out of resources (sugar). While significant attention has been paid to the relentless build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, worrying about running out fossil fuels has been very much a fringe activity.
The answer to this question has now become somewhat clearer, though it is much more nuanced than most people would expect. Rather than destruction by environmental crisis ("climate change") or economic crisis ("peak oil") we face an intricately linked combination of the two ("extreme energy"). This is not to deny the importance of either climate change or peak oil, but they not only have the same cause but are happening in the context of each other, so neither can be viewed in isolation.
As our society's unsustainable consumption of energy depletes easier to extract resources, it is driving the exploitation of evermore extreme and damaging energy sources. From fracking to the push to build a string of new biomass power stations which will devour the world's remaining forests and the plans for a wave of new, more dangerous, nuclear power stations, energy extraction is becoming much more destructive.
In the past the dominant environmental impact of exploiting fossil fuels was the impact of the carbon emissions associated with burning them but as the effort required for energy extraction has grown, so have the environmental consequences of the extraction processes themselves. The poster child for this effect are the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, but across the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the rainforests of Borneo, energy extraction is driving increasing environmental destruction.
A common propaganda tool is to portray such concerns as a stark choice between economic growth and environmental preservation, but in reality extreme energy is as damaging to people's economic well-being as it is to the environment.
As extraction effort grows, a greater fraction of economic activity must be allocated to the energy sector. In a market economy the mechanism by which this is achieved is, of course, rising energy prices, which will have the effect of diverting resources away from other activities.
In the last decade the fraction of the global economy devoted to energy extraction has almost tripled, to over 10 percent of GDP. If the use of more extreme extraction methods increases then an even greater proportion of the worlds resources must be sacrificed to these efforts.
This path leads to a world where energy extraction dominates the economy, and the majority of the population lives in its shadow. Look at the Niger Delta to see what such a world looks like.
The greatest threat
In the UK unconventional gas is by far the greatest threat. Despite the North Sea in terminal decline and increasing pressure on imports there is an insidious push to increase our dependence on gas. Fracking is seen as the way to achieve this but even if is feasible, it would require drilling of tens of thousands of wells and the devastation of the huge swathes of countryside. This will result in toxic and radioactive water contamination, air pollution, severe health effects in human and animals and increased greenhouse gas emissions all for a very short term hit of extremely expensive gas.
Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) is the even more dire spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG) which involves partially burning coal underground and bringing the resulting gases to the surface. UCG has an even worse record of environmental contamination and could potentially emit enough carbon to raise global temperatures by up to 10 degrees Celsius.
A wholesale adoption of fracking and associated methods would close off perhaps our last chance to step back from the brink. Extreme energy requires a dedication to energy production to the exclusion of all else, which would radically alter the structure of our society.
Increasingly, more expensive energy infrastructure must be built, which will divert huge amounts resources away from worthwhile activities. It will quickly become the case that the largest single consumer of the energy produced will be energy extraction processes themselves. We will end up on a treadmill running faster and faster just to stand still as everything falls apart around us.
The decision we face is between prioritising abstract notions of profit and growth or the real well-being of communities and ecosystems. The two can no longer pretend to coexist.
Natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources -- not a replacement, argues Mónica V. Cristina of Shale Gas Europe.
As one of the most hotly debated energy sources in Europe, shale gas has created big expectations but also raised numerous questions specifically around its potential impact on the environment.
The most common claims of environmental harm leveled against shale gas, and the technique used to extract it, hydraulic fracturing, are well known. They include: contamination of drinking water with chemicals and methane, a worse greenhouse gas profile than hard coal and the utilisation of "hundreds of hazardous chemicals" that gas companies "keep secret." Environmental groups also fear that investments in shale gas infrastructure will undercut the economics of renewables.
First, hydraulic fracturing has been used in Europe for decades to stimulate conventional oil and gas wells, water wells and geothermal wells. In Germany alone, more than 300 wells have been stimulated using this technique. Furthermore, when looking at the facts and scientific evidence Shale Gas Europe concludes that none of the claims above stand up to close scrutiny.
First, the concerns around water pollution. Several measures can be put in place to ensure water protection and these are employed by industry. The proper casing of the shale gas well is in this sense critical for the safety of operations and well construction techniques employ multiple barrier layers of steel and cement to isolate the well from groundwater. In addition, fracturing occurs two to three kilometers below drinking water supplies and are separated from the aquifers by multiple layers of impermeable rock. This point has been made in the peer-reviewed academic paper by Professor Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute, "Hydraulic fractures: How far can they go?", which highlighted that the height of fractures does not exceed 588 meters.
Second, the issue of chemical additives. In Europe, all the additives that will be used in fracturing solutions (representing only 0.5 per cent of the fluids) will have to fully comply with European and national regulations. Contrary to popular belief, the industry supports full disclosure to appropriate regulatory authorities of the chemical additives used in hydraulic fracturing.
In the US, for example, companies provide information on chemical additives using FracFocus, a project of the U.S. Ground Water Protection Council and U.S. Department of Energy. The general public are able to access specific information via a search, on a well-by-well basis, of the specific compounds used in hydraulic fracturing operations.
Estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas development are also a controversial issue. However, the European Commission report Climate Impact of Potential Shale Gas Production in the European Union of July 2012, clearly indicates: "The relative comparison with coal is clearer cut. In our analysis, emissions from shale gas generation are significantly lower (41 per cent to 49 per cent) than emissions from electricity generated from coal." Other recent studies published by top research centres have reached similar conclusions.
Finally, natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources as it can be quickly adjusted to changing demand as well as to the variable nature of energy production from renewables. More importantly, evidence from the United States shows that renewable energy has thrived during the natural gas production boom in the US and it is projected to continue well into the future. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the US wind industry, for example, installed 40% more capacity (wind plants) during the first three quarters of 2012 than the first three quarters of 2011. Fears that shale gas will stall renewable energy development are therefore unfounded.
Risks can be managed
No technology is without risk. However, risk can be managed. As the Royal Society pointed out in its report Shale Gas in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, it is possible to develop shale gas safely through a combination of sound regulation and modern technology.
The European Parliament endorsed this argument too when it decided to reject an EU wide moratorium on shale gas development last November. Through a report on the environmental impacts of shale gas it emphasised that any risks "should be contained through pre-emptive measures including proper planning, testing, use of new and best available technologies, best industry practices" alongside monitoring and robust regulation -- something the industry endorses.
In this respect, it is necessary to understand and concede that there are clear differences between Europe and America. When it comes to environmental regulation, it is worth keeping in mind that Europe's environmental legislation is in many respects the most advanced in the world. As Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Change, stated via twitter: "Europe is not North Dakota." Indeed, neither the scale nor the type of development will be similar on this side of the Atlantic. The opportunity for Europe to develop shale gas in a sustainable way, right from the beginning, is within reach.
Neither should we forget that we are still in an exploration phase, meaning that we are assessing if Europe has the resources and whether they can be sustainably developed. This phase will take years, but it is essential to shed light on Europe's potential to develop its own domestic natural gas resources. Professor Richard Davies, put this into perspective in an article published recently in the New Statesman: "We have drilled one shale gas well (in the UK). That's an 8 1/2 inch borehole in Lancashire, a little like pushing a pin through the ceiling of your living room and looking through the hole."
Grab the opportunity
The facts show that shale gas can be developed safely and play a key role in the transition to a greener energy future. Increased efficiency and a shift to gas from coal in the power sector have made the United States a leader in cutting energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. "This is a success story based on a combination of policy and technology - policy driving greater efficiency and technology making shale gas production viable," IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol told the Financial Times in May 2012. As a bonus, the shale gas boom has led to an unprecedent manufacturing revival fueled by cheap and abundant gas.
In the meantime, Europe is falling behind in reducing carbon emissions and reversing the fortunes of the chemical, plastics, aluminium, iron and steel, rubber, coated metals, and glass industries operating in the old continent. The time has come to put aside myths and have an honest and constructive debate on how to sustainably develop shale gas for the sake of Europe's energy future.
Mónica V. Cristina is an advisor to Shale Gas Europe. Watch investigative reports on the impacts of fracking around the world by Link TV's Earth Focus, and learn more about this issue at LinkTV.org/Fracking.