People of Dobrudzha Vote Against Gas Extraction “Do not touch our land! Do not touch our water!” written on banners in Dobrudzha. Photo: Initiative against fracking

People of Dobrudzha Vote Against Gas Extraction

Over 96.9% of people who took part in the local referendum in the municipality of General Toshevo on 17 December have voted against the extraction of gas, oil or other minerals. With a turnout of over 52%, the plebiscite was valid and put an end to yet another initiative for gas extraction in Dobrudzha that had caused a stir in recent months, and had become, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

The tragic peak of the resistance against plans for gas extraction in the region had occurred exactly two months earlier in the Dobrudzha village of Kalina, 20 km from the border with Romania. The local community centre had probably never been so full of people. It was cramped and stuffy inside where people had gathered to listen to an emotional speech by the tribune. The crowd clapped, then booed. An elderly man got up and started asking questions, choking up with emotion. He managed to ask three questions before collapsing to the floor. The ambulance arrived pointlessly late as the man had spoken his last three sentences. He died from a heart attack due to agitation.

This fatal scene unfolded on 18 October, 2017. The deceased was Peter Stefanov, 73, a former lecturer at the Sofia University of Mining and Geology. He met his end in a village community centre. The reason that he was there, along with around 100 other people, was for the public discussion of an investment project for gas extraction. Years before, after his retirement, Stefanov had returned to live in his native village of Velikovo, located next to Kalina. He was competent, had carefully read the report presented by the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Water, and had discussed it with his fellow villagers, says Cynthia Nedyalkova, activist in the campaign against gas extraction for the newspaper, 24 Hours.

The two villages of Velikovo and Kalina have a combined population of 150 people, and on 18 October, three quarters of them had left their domestic responsibilities in order to attend the public discussion. The death of their fellow villager broke their hearts but also made them even more determined. “We are afraid! Gas extraction could pollute the land; the water could be damaged forever. We depend on agriculture here, and our nature is beautiful. Too bad for Peter; obviously he got emotional”, says a 44-year-old villager from Kalina. He refused to say his name, as he stated that he worked for a municipal entity and did not want to speak on behalf of the authorities.

For the good of the land

Kalina and Velikovo are located in a huge plain region called Dobrudzha, and the Danube river cuts the area in two. The northern part is located in Romania, while the southern part is in Bulgaria. The southern part is extremely appealing due to its climate, which is suitable for crop production, and crops are grown throughout large swaths of land in the region. Data from the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Food shows that the administrative area of Dobrich (which almost entirely takes up the Bulgarian part of Dobrudzha) has the highest share of utilised agricultural area in the country at 7.3%. It is also home to the biggest areas with crops – around 10% for the country. The amounts of crops are significant, as an analysis by the National Association of Agricultural Producers shows that Bulgaria is firmly among the first 30 producers and 20 exporters of wheat in the world. And according to data from the National Statistical Institute in 2016, the agricultural land in Dobrudzha was marketed for 1,602 leva (820 euro) per decare, which is more than twice as much as the country’s average. This is an opportunity for the locals to profit from selling and renting.

This extremely important agricultural region also borders the Black Sea in the east, and tourism has been developing along the beautiful coastline. But the subsurface of the land is rich as well, and oil deposits have been discovered near the shore. Around 70 years ago, the oil was extracted, and now companies are searching for new oil fields. In the interior, near Kalina, Velikovo and dozens of other villages, there are undiscovered gas sources. This is all a dilemma for the future – should we look for prosperity through goods on the surface or below it? “Why would we change something that gives local people subsistence and replace it with something else?!”, asks Ilyan Iliev, director of the Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development – Varna.

On 14 January, 2012, thousands of citizens gathered on the streets of twelve Bulgarian cities to voice their explicit stance against shale gas extraction via the technology of “hydraulic hammering”. Photo – BlueLink.net archive.

Gas is an old topic in the Bulgarian part of Dobrudzha. It is linked to protests and unrest locally, but concerns exist across the entire country as well. In 2012, there were mass demonstrations in Dobrudzha and other big cities in Bulgaria against the intentions of American company Chevron to explore for shale gas deposits. At that time, the Bulgarian Parliament imposed a moratorium on extraction via fracking.

Why change something that gives local people subsistence

Despite the method being banned, people were still worried it would be used. In 2014, there was unrest against the Canadian company, Park Place Energy Corporation, which wanted to explore near the Dobrudzha village of Vranino. The project was ultimately stopped by judicial procedures.

By analogy, at the same time, there was unrest against shale gas extraction in Romania as well, and in 2013 there were mass protests with even riots and police brutalities in some villages, such as Pungesti. Romanian eco organisations always support their Bulgarian colleagues, because the two countries are connected with a common aquifer. “The people of Dobrudzha are in their right to protest. There is no guarantee here in Romania nor in Bulgaria that fracking would not be used. How could people have any idea what method is used? Mistrust is normal”, says protester Kozmin Marya from Bucharest.

Gas fever once more

The project that is now causing a stir is one by Bulgarian company Rusgeocom BG. It began in 2003, and then, according to Bulgarian economic weekly newspaper Capital, the Russian company Bashkirgeology was granted permission to explore. Four years later, the project was bought by Rusgeocom BG, which managed to prove that there are gas deposits and registered a geological discovery. This led to an appeal to the government for a 35-year concession with a proven recoverable deposit of 1.097 billion cubic meters of gas and potential for 2.5 times more. Public consultations began at the start of October, 2017, and according to the Bulgarian legislation, they should be held before the granting of any concession.

Misled by the name of the investor, and because of the former participation of Bashkirgeology, the people of Dobrudzha initially thought that the project was Russian. But then it became clear that Rusgeocom BG is connected to Overgas, the biggest private supplier of natural gas in the country.

Ivanka Kazakova, organiser of a protest in Varna on 20 October, 2017, showing the possible damages that gas extraction could cause to nature in Dobrudzha. Photo: Lyubomir Benkovski – Benji/Bulphoto.

Rusgeocom BG firmly denies that they would use fracking. “During the exploitation, the method of hydraulic hammering will not be applied”, said a media statement from the company in the autumn. Before its final decision, PECSD – Varna gave a positive assessment of the project’s environmental impact. But the people of Dobrudzha do not believe the ecological inspection and are not reassured by the words of the investor. “Not only shale gas extraction but conventional gas extraction as well could pollute the water in the region. The extraction of underground resources in Dobrudzha is done at levels deeper than the groundwater. A single spilt drop of oil could pollute a thousand litres of water”, says Iliev. Since the beginning of the autumn in 2017 until today, protests have been organised regularly in the town of General Toshevo, the municipal centre of the territories where extraction is planned.

According to social activist Ilyan Vasilev, who often comments on economic topics via social media, protests are a “hybrid operation”. Vasilev granted the editorial team with some photographs that demonstrate pro-Russian participants in the anti-gas protests. He suggests a secret meddling from Russia, since Bulgaria imports natural gas from there and Russia has no interest in the Balkan country having its own production. Similar rumours have been heard since 2012, when protests prevented the project by Chevron, an American corporation. But many protesters explicitly reject the idea of any Russian influence. “To us, it does not matter who it is exactly that is realising the project. If water becomes polluted, why would nationality matter?”, asks Dimitar Stoyanov from Dobrich, the largest town in Dobrudzha.

“During exploitation, the method of hydraulic hammering will not be applied. Gas extraction will not have a negative impact on the environment and aquifer. In Bulgaria, drilling as a way of natural gas extraction has been used for decades, and everyone can see if there is damage caused to nature or people in the areas of the current gas deposits, and there are such in Dobrudzha as well”, reads a press release from Rusgeocom BG. The company promises to act entirely according to Bulgarian legislation, high professional standards and in the interest of the development and the prosperity of Bulgarian energy. “At Rusgeocom BG, we respect and understand the concerns of the local population. We are willing to answer all questions and refute any concerns”, the company adds.

Dimitar Merachev, geologist at Rusgeocom BG, stated for Darik Radio in the beginning of November, 2017, that in Bulgaria and Romania there are over 270 oil and gas deposits under the aquifer, with no consequences to the purity of water.

Conversely, people living in the region and civil organisations do not agree. According to Dimo Vodkadzhiev, protester from General Toshevo, dangerous cargo cannot be transported on bridle roads, and in the region of drilling there are no asphalt overlays. This would force the investor to transport dangerous materials without authorisation. “The content of the moratorium that applies to Bulgaria prohibits not only fracking but also a technology that opens new cavities and widens old ones”, states Mariana Hristova, president of the “Citizens’ initiatives for the prohibition of exploration and extraction of shale gas via fracking” association. She claims that in the proposal, the investor had stated that they could not achieve production in trading volumes via conventional technology. Thus they would allow for using unconventional methods. “How would the humus layer of the soil recover? An irreversible ecological process would be created in the region of Bulgaria that is the richest in resources. Agricultural land would be mined and would not recover”, states Detelina Simeonova from the “Civil Society for Dobrich” organisation.

Wheat provides the region with 200 million euro a year

Rusgeocom BG claims that 50% of the concession payments would stay at the local municipality. The offer of the company, proposed to the local community at the time of the public discussion in General Toshevo, was as follows: “For the drilling and exploitation local workers will be hired. The cooperation with local business will have a positive effect, as transportation, lifting and construction equipment will be used, which can be rented from companies in the region. Also food delivery will be carried out by local businesses. And specialists will need accommodations, which is in favour of hotel-keepers”.

However, the community’s opinion, which it shared with the representatives of the company, is to the contrary: “Will you at least be giving us 100 million euro a year? Because wheat provides the region with 200 million euro a year”. Ilyan Iliev thinks that the alternative to gas is what is above the ground. “And these are not just the big fields of grain but also different types of agriculture, investments in fruit trees, vegetable growing and alternative energy sources. In Dobrich, there is already a biomass station. Why not have more? Science is considering changing conventional sources to alternative ones, but we are going backwards. Besides, how many jobs for the locals can a gas well open? They certainly will not be as many as with agriculture. No matter who gets the deposits, the locals would be ripped off. The only just scheme is to leave the local peoples’ resources in their hands”, he says.

Dobrudzha votes

Internet banner of the campaign against gas extraction in Dobrudzha. Source: “Citizens’ initiatives for the prohibition of exploration and extraction of shale gas via fracking” association

Ultimately, the future of the region was decided with a local referendum. It took place on 17 December, 2017, on the territory of the municipality of General Toshevo, and it was called for by the municipal authorities. The question was the following: “Are you opposed to the General Toshevo Municipality, through the City Council or the Mayor of the Municipality, approving development plans that define areas for exploration, extraction, processing of the following underground resources: oil, natural gas, solid fuels, mining waste?” The municipal electoral commission declared the final results shortly after midnight. According to the commission, 6,671 voters took part in the referendum, or around 52.72% of the 12,654 registered voters. If this proportion is confirmed by the Central Electoral Commission, the referendum would be absolutely valid, as the required minimum of 40% turnout would have been reached. According to the municipal commission, the number of valid voting papers with the answer “Yes” after the local vote was 6,465, or 96.91% of the votes cast. The number of valid voting papers with the answer “No” was 172, while the voting papers with no answer, two answers or papers in which the answer cannot be determined was 19. Fifteen papers were declared invalid. The voting papers were given to the Central Electoral Commission, and the legitimacy of the results can be contested within a seven-day period after their declaration in the Administrative court in Dobrich.

The text “People of Dobrudzha Vote Against Gas Extraction” was first published on December 18, 2017 in Evromegdan.bg. Translation from Bulgarian: Kalina Momcheva.