Plans by the leftist government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta to approve the tapping of natural resources in the European Union’s second-poorest state have triggered nationwide protests since the start of September, throwing together local communities, environmentalists, civic rights groups and the clergy.
According to Reuters, protesters have criticised a lack of transparency in approving the project and are demanding stronger safeguards to protect Romania’s environment and national heritage.
On Thursday, Chevron suspended work on what was to be its first exploration well in the small town of Pungesti in Vaslui county, 340 kilometres north-east of the capital Bucharest, after locals blocked access to the site.
Yet the Pungesti people, most of whom live off subsistence farming in one of Europe’s poorest regions, have continued protesting, asking officials to revoke drilling plans.
More than 800 locals, priests and activists gathered on Saturday in front of the empty lot where Chevron planned to install the well. Hundreds rallied in other cities, Reuters said.
In punishing windy weather, they waved “Stop Chevron” banners and knelt to the ground while a priest led them in prayer. A group of horse riders clad in national costumes then destroyed a cardboard model of an oil well.
Shale gas faces opposition due to concerns around hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations to push out gas.
Critics have said it can pollute water supplies and trigger small earthquakes. Advocates claim it has a strong safety record and point to countries like the US, where extensive fracking has driven down prices.
“I am against shale gas exploitation because of the chemicals used in fracking,” Reuters quoted 25-year-old Vasile Ciobanu as saying. Ciobanu has returned to Pungesti after working abroad for three years and now lives a few hundred metres away from the proposed well site.
“I don’t think the company and Romanian officials are thinking about what could happen to people who live here.”
Chevron declined to comment. Earlier this year, the company won all necessary approvals to drill exploratory wells in Vaslui. It also has rights to explore three blocks near the Black Sea. The exploration phase is expected to last for about five years.
According to US Energy Information Administration estimates, Romania could potentially recover 51 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, which would cover domestic demand for more than a century and help push prices lower.