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Shale gas extraction in Poland: is there any hope left?

Ten years have passed since the first concession to search for shale gas was issued. There were several problems of technological, economic and legal nature, which prevented Poland from becoming potentate in extracting this resource. It may seem that Poland missed its chance. However, monitoring and using new methods of shale gas production together with legal framework implementation, which would encourage the investors, can mark a new chapter in history of the Polish gas industry.

Shale gas in Poland: from euphoria to disappointment
According to the data provided by the Ministry of Environment the first concession to search for shale gas was issued in 2007, and the first drilling took place three years later. In the peak moment in 2012 111 exploration concessions were in force.1)Poszukiwania gazu ze złóż łupkowych w Polsce 2007-2016 wg stanu na dzień 29 II 2016, Ministerstwo Środowiska 2016.This year was also marked by the publication of the Polish Geological Institute, in which the deposits were estimated at 346-768bn cubic metres.2)Ulatniają się nadzieje na duże zyski z gazu łupkowego, Dziennik Polski 2017-02-09.In 2011 the Polish Prime Minister anticipated that the commercial production of shale gas will have begun after three years.3)Assessment of shale gas and shale oil resources of the lower paleozoic Baltic-Podlasie-Lublin basin in Poland. First report, Polski Instytut Geologiczny 2012.According to the observers, for instance former Minister of Economy Janusz Steinhoff, thanks to shale gas extraction Poland would have an opportunity to become independent of its imports while causing the lowering of prices on the domestic market.4)J. Steinhoff: gaz łupkowy da Polsce samowystarczalność, Portal Spraw Zagranicznych 2011-09-08.

Yet, in 2015 foreign investors started to withdraw and Polish state companies PGNiG and PKN Orlen abandoned their projects last year.5)PGNiG porzuca gaz łupkowy, ale nie szczelinowanie hydrauliczne, Biznes Alert 2016-10-17.

Reason No. 1: Mistakes made in communication with the investors and legal issues
Up to January 1st 2015, when the amendment of the Law on Geology and Mining came into force, there were three different types of concession, which related exclusively to exploration, appraisal and production. In practice, the investor that found gas deposits and bore the costs related to research could not be sure that he would have the right for extraction.6)Polish shale gas hits a dry well, Politico 2015-06-16.Not until 2015, when one concession for exploration, appraisal and production was introduced could companies have greater certainty that the business would be profitable.
Furthermore, the foreign media informed that the concessions for exploration were granted for a five-year period with the possibility of one-time extension for a further two years. As the exploration is a long-term process, the investors feared that if they did not start the production in appropriate time, they would lose their place in the market. What is more, the news broke that failure to strictly follow the schedule of whatever reason would result in financial penalties.7)Shale gas in Poland. Mad and messy regulation, The Economist 2013-07-10.
By this time such foreign corporations decided to resign. In sum, by the end of 2014 of 11 foreign investors 7 lost their interest, even though they spent £500m.8)Poland’s shale gas dreams put on hold, Financial Times 2014-11-16.
Before the new law was implemented, different propositions were discussed in public. Those resulted in further uncertainty related to the business profitability. An appointment of the National Operator of the Energy Fossils was mentioned as a strategic state company which would supervise the production sector and would be the shareholder of all the investments connected to the extraction. Except for that, the maximum tax rate of 40% of profits was under consideration, which also prompted the doubts about the profitability of further operations.9)Shale gas in Poland. Mad and messy regulation, The Economist 2013-07-10.
It the report prepared by the Supreme Audit Office it was pointed out that not only were the proper regulations introduced too late, but also that the concessions were granted in a protracted manner. According to the institution the applicants were treated unequally and the auditors underlined the potential for corruption as an outcome of such a situation.10)NIK o poszukiwaniach gazu łupkowego, Najwyższa Izba Kontroli 2014-01-13.

Reason no. 2.: The situation on the global markets
When the interest in Polish shale gas was the greatest, the prices of the resource went rapidly down. In March 2012 the media informed about the highest decrease in the decade.11)Natural gas prices hit 10-year low, CNN Money 2012-03-09.In the end of 2014 the price dropped to $2.322 per million British thermal units, which means it was lower by 85% than 9 years earlier. The vehement decrease was the aftermath of the development of gas extraction industry in the US and the appearance of large amounts of American shale gas on the market.12)US natural gas prices fall to decade low, Financial Times 2012-01-19.
Large gas deliveries from the deposits that enable easy extraction resulted in the conviction that investments in Polish shale gas are not viable, especially if we consider bureaucratic matters and the need to develop other production methods.

Reason no. 3.: The geological and litological characteristics
The first problem is the shale deposit thickness. In Poland it is considered to be thin as in the most favourable areas it is 50m thick.13)Assessment of shale gas and shale oil resources of the lower paleozoic Baltic-Podlasie-Lublin basin in Poland. First report, Polski Instytut Geologiczny 2012.In other words, the exploration is more difficult because there is no easy way to estimate how large a deposit will be exposed.
Also the depth of the deposits is crucial. In Poland shale is present in Silurian sediments, i.e. they are placed between 2,5 up to 4km beneath the surface. It means that in Poland the technology of resource extraction is more complicated.
Another problem is the large amount of clay minerals in shale. Those result in low sediment permeability. It is a huge difficulty for the companies.
For the geologists the TOC (Total Organic Carbon) index is important since it determines the percentage of total organic carbon in sediments and points at the potential quantity of the resource which may be extracted. In Poland this indicator equals usually between 3-5% and is similar to the Chinese, but there are many areas where it is as low as 2% and some where it as high as 11%.14)Organic matter content in shales, Infołupki.It means that in many regions the extraction is unprofitable, considering the fact that American shale is characterized by an average TOC of 10-12%.

Reason no. 4: The technology of hydraulic fracturing
Commonly, the resource is extracted from highly permeable sandstone, so the production is quite easy. Shale gas is considered as “unconventional” because it is nested within poorly permeable deposits. In order to release it, it is necessary to fracture the rocks.
However, clay minerals made the method ineffective as the rocks swelled and prevented the gas from flowing. Meanwhile, for the last few years the technology of using CO2 as fracturing fluid has been developed. It is successfully employed in China, where shale has similar parameters.

What future awaits the Polish shale gas industry?
Considering the discussed issues, extraction of Polish shale gas may be profitable for the investors if its costs of production drop or if the quantity of the extracted resource is higher. Right now the geological and litological conditions together with the applied technology enable the companies to produce 10 thousand m3 of gas per day while the investments would be viable if the output was twice as high.15)Aż popłynie gaz – 5 lat poszukiwań gazu ziemnego z łupków, Infołupki 2016-01-06.Though the discussions referring to the potential resource quantity in Polish shale continue, the truth is that not enough studies focusing on identifying gas-rich areas have been conducted. Except for that, the technologies that are becoming more and more popular in other states and may be appropriate for Polish conditions were not employed.
Firstly, Poland has to simply wait for price changes on the global markets. While gas remains cheap, there will not be any interest in extracting a resource that generates difficulties. This factor is external and it may result in production delay of a few years.
Secondly, though the new law has been introduced, there is a need to work on other provisions that would attract the investors. For instance, different tax mechanisms and their market consequences are worth considering. As one researcher argues, the lump sum tax might be the most beneficial to all parties.16)Shale gas in Poland: An analysis of tax mechanisms and dynamic interactions, Journal of Economics and Management 2016.Above all, the climate of uncertainty should be eliminated.

Except for that, state’s central institutions should solve the problems identified by the Supreme Audit Office. To start with, it is important that the financial capabilities of entrepreneurs and their ability to carry out actual resource exploration and extraction projects are taken into account.
Thirdly, it is in the state’s interest to support domestic initiatives oriented on developing new technologies of shale gas production such as BlueGas Project,17)Diox4Shell Project.which aims at introducing a new method of fracturing based on liquid CO2.
Only if such conditions are met could the interest in Polish shale gas re-emerge. It is even more important, considering the fact that Poland will probably resign from acquiring Russian gas in 2022.18)Naimski: Polska nie przedłuży umowy na dostawy gazu z Rosji, Centrum Informacji o Rynku Energii 2016-05-30.The policy-makers should be advised to prepare the ground for the development of initiatives in the field of unconventional gas extraction, so when the renewed interest occurs, there would be no investors that abandon their projects before they are actually started.

References   [ + ]

1. Poszukiwania gazu ze złóż łupkowych w Polsce 2007-2016 wg stanu na dzień 29 II 2016, Ministerstwo Środowiska 2016.
2. Ulatniają się nadzieje na duże zyski z gazu łupkowego, Dziennik Polski 2017-02-09.
3, 13. Assessment of shale gas and shale oil resources of the lower paleozoic Baltic-Podlasie-Lublin basin in Poland. First report, Polski Instytut Geologiczny 2012.
4. J. Steinhoff: gaz łupkowy da Polsce samowystarczalność, Portal Spraw Zagranicznych 2011-09-08.
5. PGNiG porzuca gaz łupkowy, ale nie szczelinowanie hydrauliczne, Biznes Alert 2016-10-17.
6. Polish shale gas hits a dry well, Politico 2015-06-16.
7, 9. Shale gas in Poland. Mad and messy regulation, The Economist 2013-07-10.
8. Poland’s shale gas dreams put on hold, Financial Times 2014-11-16.
10. NIK o poszukiwaniach gazu łupkowego, Najwyższa Izba Kontroli 2014-01-13.
11. Natural gas prices hit 10-year low, CNN Money 2012-03-09.
12. US natural gas prices fall to decade low, Financial Times 2012-01-19.
14. Organic matter content in shales, Infołupki.
15. Aż popłynie gaz – 5 lat poszukiwań gazu ziemnego z łupków, Infołupki 2016-01-06.
16. Shale gas in Poland: An analysis of tax mechanisms and dynamic interactions, Journal of Economics and Management 2016.
17. Diox4Shell Project.
18. Naimski: Polska nie przedłuży umowy na dostawy gazu z Rosji, Centrum Informacji o Rynku Energii 2016-05-30.

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