Canadian fracking firm eyes Burgos

Spain’s government is now supporting plans to use the controversial gas extraction method

Manuel Planelles
Oil wells at Sargentes de Lora, Burgos.
Oil wells at Sargentes de Lora, Burgos.Gorka Lejarcegi

The wind energy boom of the early 2000s brought money to many rural communities throughout Spain, but never quite made it to Masa, a remote village in the northern province of Burgos.

There were plans to install a number of turbines on public land there that would have brought in around €6,000 a year, says Florencio Herrero, the village mayor. “We had signed a provisional agreement, but it ran out after four years and that was that,” he explains.

Now the community has been approached by BNK, a Canadian company that wants to explore for shale gas using the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping water at high pressure thousands of meters underground to force gas out of fissures in the rock.

The company has applied to the central government and to the regional administration of Castilla y León to undertake up to 12 surveys in five areas in the north of Burgos. Among these is Masa, where BNK has asked for its project to be declared of public use, which would allow it to temporarily take over a piece of land around the size of two soccer pitches to drill two wells.

It’s hard to know who to believe, says a local resident: “all the arguments seem biased and slanted”

The patch of land in question, where a few cows graze and local residents get their firewood, sums up the Spanish government’s turnaround in energy policy: from the previous Socialist administration’s commitment to subsidized renewables, to the current conservative government’s focus on fossil fuels. Despite near total opposition from locals, the ruling Popular Party (PP) supported offshore oil and gas development in the Canary Islands, although plans to explore there have now been abandoned.

BNK wants to drill down to four-and-a-half kilometers in Burgos. If it finds evidence of shale gas, it would then drill a further two kilometers horizontally, injecting a mixture of water and sand along with chemicals to break up the shale rock where the gas is hidden. For the moment, the company has asked only for authorization to explore. If it wishes to exploit any reserves, it will have to apply for further permits.

Florencio Herrero says he had never even heard of fracking until three years ago. He visited BNK’s wells in Poland at the company’s expense, where he says he learned that “the subsoil belongs to the state.” In other words, the government decides whether BNK can or cannot drill here. Asked if he supports fracking in his community, he is evasive: “I wouldn’t do it, but if it benefits the community... This is a long-term project. I probably won’t be around to see it by the time it gets underway,” says the 72-year-old.

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But Germán de Diego, the mayor of nearby Valle de Sedano, is unambiguous in his opposition: “We’re going to do everything possible to prevent this from going ahead,” he says.

He says the local council will refuse to sell the land to BNK, and that there is near-unanimous opposition from the council members of the five municipalities, all of them run by the PP, where BNK wants to drill.

Sedano residents Álvaro Fernández, Luisa Huidobro, María Ruiz and Vanesa Ramos are spearheading the campaign against fracking in this community of around 500 people. Their concern is the possible impact of fracking on the environment, and of gas seeping into the water supply. “This village lives off tourism, and that depends on protecting nature, our rivers and springs,” says Huidobro.

The campaigners have been active throughout the area, and there are leaflets explaining the dangers of fracking in shops, restaurants and bars, warning that the method “causes earthquakes, and pollutes water and the fields. It is incompatible with other uses of the land such as agriculture, livestock and tourism.” But BNK insists that its methods are “safe and backed by the practice and experience of decades.” Local resident Mario Fernández says it’s hard to know who to believe: “All the arguments seem biased and slanted.”

There are serious problems with fracking, but experts haven’t completely ruled out pilot schemes in Europe” Miguel Delibes, biologist

Miguel Delibes, who arguably knew more than any other writer about the Spanish countryside and was warning of the dangers to the environment from industry back in the 1950s, spent his summers in Sedano, and many members of his extended family still own properties here. His son Miguel, a biologist and chairman of the Doñana National Park Participation Council, an advisory body, takes a measured approach.

“My wish is for no hydraulic fracturing in Sedano,” he says, adding that the EU-funded European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, which provides independent advice on the scientific aspects of public policy in the 27-member bloc, said in November that there were no scientific or technical grounds for banning fracking. “There are serious problems, but they didn’t completely rule out pilot schemes in Europe,” he says. Its comments are being studied by the Spanish Academy of Sciences, of which Delibes is a member.

About half an hour’s drive from Sedano lie the oil fields of Sargentes de Lora, where dozens of pumpjacks, or nodding donkeys, have been extracting oil since the 1960s. These wells are one of the reasons why BNK is prepared to spend up to €20 million per exploration well in Sedano, Mas, and three other villages in the area. There is no doubt that there is gas under the rolling hills of Burgos. The suspicion is that it’s shale gas, which can only be extracted by fracking.

Half a century on, the oil coming from the Sargentes wells is no longer high quality, and over at the nearby Oro Negro (Black Gold) bar, the customers have long since gone.

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