You might miss Zurawlow as you drive the narrow roads that weave through the gentle rolling hills of Southeastern Poland. A small sign is all that indicates a small town is just up ahead, along a dirt and gravel road.
There are two other signs at this fork in the road. One reads, "Chevron: We don’t want gas." The sign has a double meaning; it refers to the gas chambers used in Poland during the Holocaust and to the natural gas to be extracted through unconventional shale drilling. The other sign reads, “Yesterday Chernobyl, Today Chevron". It refers to the nuclear reactor disaster in neighboring Ukraine. Residents fear similar dangers may be lurking in their future.
Similar signs hang on the house of Andrezj Bak, a civil engineer, who lives and works in a nearby city but spends weekends at his home in this rural mixed-income community. He grows rows of food crops; he drinks water from an underground well; and he is friendly with his neighbors.
Bak keeps a thick binder containing Poland’s environmental laws, European Union pollution regulations, newspaper and magazine clippings, and correspondence he has had with Chevron.
"Nothing protects people who live here, nothing will protect them from pollution, from destruction of the area, and also our legal system allows them to be removed from the land," he said.
Poland’s Geological and Mining Law was implemented this year. Similar to U.S. eminent domain laws, the mining law allows the state to seize land sitting on shale gas deposits for industrial purposes. That worries people like Bak, who says companies like Chevron already have too much power in a nation yearning to develop a natural gas industry but without a legal structure to regulate it. He reads stories of dangerous methane releases and poor regulation in the United States as cautionary tales of what could happen in Poland.
"We just started reading and looking for things on the internet and talking to lawyers and specialists. When we first learned of this, we were in favor of gas -- in favor of development, a chance to give Poland a new fuel, a new energy source, until we read about it in depth and until we realized that there are threats related to it. Basically, the more information we got and the more contacts we started making, the more we became convinced that this is not the right thing to do here," he said.
Bak’s neighbor, Marek Bernard, a wheat and dairy farmer, feels the same way.
"I think it is just impossible to do it here. We have no interest in it; we don’t want it because the gas will go somewhere else. Someone else will have profits; we will have no advantages from it, no positive results from it," he said.
Landowners in Poland do not own the rights to minerals on their property; the state does. Chevron had government approval to conduct a test drill for shale gas in Zurawlow earlier this year. Another local farmer, Wieslaw Gryn, compares Chevron's arrival to a western movie.
"Chevron came here like John Wayne into a saloon. They just organized a meeting a week before they wanted to start the ground works. They first signed the agreements and then informed people what was going to happen here," he said.
Gryn runs a large 1800-acre farm in Zurawlow. His family has worked this land for the last century. After collective Soviet-style agriculture collapsed, he bought as many acres as he could afford to increase his business. He now sells his farm products internationally – to Europe, the US and The Middle East.
When Chevron came into town, Gryn and his neighbors decided they weren’t going to let the intruders get started.
Residents blocked the road and called the police. Although Chevron had the paperwork to begin drilling, the townspeople found a loophole to stop it - flying right over their heads.
Poland is a birder’s paradise with nearly 500 species of birds, many of them rare. The country’s laws dictate that during bird breeding season, which starts in March and lasts several months, nothing can be done on the ground or in the air that would interfere with the birds' habits and habitats. The locals used that exception to prevent Chevron from drilling. So the company picked up and left, without exploring for shale gas.
"At this time, we have no immediate operational plans at Zurawlow, although we remain open for future operations," said Grazyna Bukowska, the spokesperson for Chevron Polska Energy. She says Chevron representatives met with residents in eight communities – seven of which supported their operations. She said only the meeting in Zurawlow was interrupted by protesters, as Chevron representatives tried to discuss their plans for groundwater and soil management and play up economic opportunities for the town. The protesters said they found it insulting that the company came to town with toys for the children but declined to answer the grownups’ questions.
In surveys Chevron has conducted, Bukowska said, respondents are generally in favor of what Chevron is doing, or plans to do. She reiterates that the driller had the proper paperwork to proceed in Zurawlow.
"Chevron had all the permits, but what's the reason to do such action? I mean..." She resumed after a long pause, "sorry, I have to stick to my statement which I stated before. Chevron had all the permits which allowed us to enter the site," said Bukowska.
Civil engineer Bak and his neighbors are looking for ways, other than avian protection, to keep Chevron out. He says the weight of the company's trucks exceeds the legal limit on the roads. The townspeople have filed complaints about that with authorities.
Martin Zieba from the Polish Oil and Gas Group says communities that welcome drilling should be allowed to permit it. He says the fears of environmental contamination are unwarranted and are based on a lack of information about the fracturing process and gas extraction.
Although Chevron may decide not to proceed in Zurawlow, it has already leased the land it wants. The property is owned by Janusz Katek. Katek would not disclose how much he was being paid -- or for how long. But he concedes he cannot farm for two years on the land Chevron has leased. He says he needs to take advantage of this financial opportunity. Compared to his neighbors, Katek lives in a run-down house, with far less acreage.
"I don’t work with this industry, so I don’t know details. I don’t know if this is good or bad. I believe if the government is giving them concessions and allowances to drill [then] those people know what they are doing, and that is why they are sitting there in all those ministries and offices, and they are supposed to know whether this is a safe thing or not. How can I know such a thing? If they receive permits, then I know that this is something that is not harmful," he said.
Katek says until Chevron drills, he won’t know whether he made a good or bad decision.
"I still talk to people like I used to. We are still neighbors, but I don’t believe in all they say because we were together in the municipality and the district offices, and the officials there said perhaps there is some other company that is paying them [the upset neighbors], perhaps it is Gazprom, a Russian company that is paying them because they [Gazprom] don’t want this drilling to be going on here," he said.
One of those officials is Piotr Wozniak, Poland’s Chief Geologist and the Deputy Minister for the Environment. He contends the type of shale and its depth -- the very things that make it difficult and expensive to drill in Poland -- ensure the process will be safe, especially when the investment is $15 million dollars per well.
"When thinking and talking about water contamination, it's most unlikely. In Poland we have our shales located at least three kilometers located below the surface or more, so it’s like the distance from here to the closest Metro station," he said.
Wozniak says even without the depth issue, fears of environmental damage remain unfounded.
"I don’t know of any proved case of contaminated water due to fracking in the United States. Again, I haven’t heard of any proved case of contaminated water due to fracking in the United States. So we defer opinions on this," he said with a laugh.
That’s not true, and the residents of Zurawlow, many of whom spend hours researching online, know better. They read tales of American farmers who have had their cattle die and their farms lose value. And they worry about where the water for the extraction process will come from and where the waste will be discarded.