US energy major Chevron, shielded by barbed wire, under police protection and under fire from egg throwers, is in trouble in Romania with villagers angry at its drive to drill for shale gas.
Opposition is fierce in the tiny remote village of Pungesti near the border with Moldova which has become a symbol of hostility to the environmentally controversial techniques of extracting shale gas.
“In other countries, I have not experienced this type of protest”, said grim-faced drill site-manager for Chevron, Greg Murphy.
His words were almost drowned out by cries of “stop Chevron”, “thieves”, and “please leave” from dozens of demonstrators at the wire barriers as he showed journalists the site in the northeast of the country.
Various new techniques for extracting oil and gas, notably “fracking” involving the injection of water and chemicals deep into rock to release reserves, has lead to booming production in North America.
The flows of this cheap energy are causing upheaval on world markets in what the International Energy Agency describes as an energy revolution.
Chevron has broadened its attention to potential reserves in eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Romania.
But the company’s attempts to establish its first exploration well in Romania were suspended twice at the end of 2013 owing to demonstrations by villagers.
Now the site is a “special security zone”, and people in the area have to show identity papers.
Chevron has gone on a charm offensive with an “open day” bussing the media pack directly into the site in coaches to avoid contact with the local people.
But villagers outmanoeuvred the minders, made their way across fields and turned up uninvited to vent their anger as the Chevron executives showed journalists around.
One of the coaches came under fire from eggs.
“We thought Chevron executives were inside,” a demonstrator said later.
Chevron’s country manager in Romania, Tom Holst, held that the objectors did not represent feeling in Pungesti, which includes several hamlets nestling in hills.
“I would say that people of Pungesti are very anxious for this project. There are benefits to be had and those benefits are jobs. There are approximately 60 locals who are working here on the project. About 30 from Pungesti,” he said.
“Given the recent events in the Ukraine, countries are very, very concerned that they have energy security and that they are not dependent on imports,” he said referring to Russian intervention in Crimea and a big increase in the price of Russian gas for Ukraine.
Romania, unlike many countries in eastern and western Europe, is not heavily dependent on Russian gas since it produces gas itself, and last year imported from Russia only about 10 percent of its supplies, according to financial newspaper Ziarul Financiar.
But the main concern which drives opposition to the drilling is that fracking technology could seriously damage the environment below and above ground.
On this, too, Holst was reassuring.
“This is an exploration well,” he said.
“Hydraulic fracturing will not be used.”
But many local people object that if the drilling finds gas, it will be only a matter of time until fracking techniques are used.
Mariana Morosanu, a 33-year-old local farmer who has cows, goats and chickens, referring to a common concern that underground water reserves could be contaminated, asks: “If it’s not dangerous why did France ban fracking?”
But the objecting villagers target the root of their wrath at Romanian officials, accusing them of “betrayal”.
The Social Democrat Party of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, when in opposition, opposed exploration for shale gas but is now fervently in favour.
“Unfortunately, our politicians do not care about the population,” Mariana asserted.
For Chevron, Holst was confident: “We expect that within the next two to three weeks, the drilling operation will commence here in Pungesti,” he said.