03:23 - Source: CNN
Poland's shale gas potential

Story highlights

Shale gas exploration ongoing in Poland

Potentially holds Europe's largest reserves of shale gas

Process of extracting gas, called 'fracking' is controversial

Around 90% of Poland's energy needs currently served by coal

Editor’s Note: CNN International’s Eye On series is visiting Poland. Read and watch reports from the country online and on TV until June 8.

(CNN) —  

Poland may be sitting on a vast natural resource that could make it energy independent.

The Polish government is funding exploratory research into whether or not it should drill for shale gas – a fossil fuel that some experts believe the country has an abundance of.

Currently coal provides 90% of Poland’s energy making it one of Europe’s most heavily dependent on traditional fossil fuels and the biggest European coal exporter. It has around 17 billion tonnes of coal reserves, according to Euracoal, the European Association for Coal and Lignite, but the country is committed to reducing carbon emission by 20% by 2020.

If substantial reserves of natural gas are found buried deep in Poland’s shale rock formations many believe it could also loosen Russia’s grip on Western Europe’s energy market.

Poland is arguably the biggest focus for shale gas in all of Europe,” says Beata Stelmach, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister.

“But it is not at all clear how many reserves there are… that won’t be known for another three to five years. There is some worry that early high estimates were widely over enthusiastic.”

The Polish government invited big energy companies like Chevron to explore potential gas fields in the southeast of the country. While Chevron has experience developing shale gas in the U.S., Poland is a new frontier where little is known.

“If you look at the shales in the U.S., they have had hundreds or thousands of penetrations before, really, exploration began. (In Poland) there is just a lot less information,” says John Claussen of Chevron.

What is known is that the method to extract shale gas, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking“, is controversial and can have serious consequence for the environment. The process involves injecting water and chemicals into the shale at extremely high pressure to release the gas.

There have been protests in the U.S. against fracking as it is claimed that it can contaminate local water supplies as well to cause wider environmental damage. France and Bulgaria have banned the process because of environmental concerns.

“Fracking definitely raises certain doubts,” says Przemyslaw Karcz, a geologist with the Polish Geological Survey.

“However it is important to remember that in the United States a few thousand sites have already used this fracking system. And that means that the Americans and other exploratory firms have a huge deal of experience when it comes to the extraction of shale gas and fracking. There have maybe been a couple of accidents. Therefore if we look at this the statistics are in favor of exploration.”

Electricity consumption is set to increase by 30% in Poland by 2030, according to Euracoal. If it cannot diversify its energy sources it will have to rely on importing most of its natural gas from neighboring Russia, while still getting the vast majority of its energy from local coal.

“We are not able to say the precise figures (of how much shale gas there is in Poland),” says Stelmach. “It may change map of the energy of Europe.”

CNN’s Jim Boulden contributed to this report