March 2020 in Serbia was marked by the start of the coronavirus epidemic. However, for the inhabitants of Ludoška Street in Palić that was the beginning of a different kind of disaster – heavy oil drilling machinery “moved into” their neighborhood. Trucks, cranes, tracked vehicles and an oil rig are just about a hundred meters away from the Miković family house.
The Petroleum Industry of Serbia (NIS) is conducting well testing in several places there, with the idea of exploring the soil to see if there is any oil or gas which it would later extract.
Last year noise was made by the drilling and now it is made by the trucks transporting oil on a daily basis, says Zoltan Miković. Aside from the cracks in the walls of their house, he has noticed another problem. The drinking water has not been the same since the drilling began.
“The water has become more turbid and has started to smell. Not just in our house, but in others, too,” says Miković.
Petar Pižurica, executive director of the production department at PUC Subotica Waterworks and Sewerage, which is in charge of water quality control in Palić, among other places, claims that the company conducted an analysis of samples from two Palić water wells before and after the oil wells were made. According to him, there was no change in the quality of the water.
“Generally, this drilling has not damaged those aquifers of ours from which we take water,” Pižurica told the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), but did not submit the results of the analyses.
However, Miković, who is planning to move away with his family because of the whole situation, just like several of his neighbors have already done, says that no analysis was conducted for his house. He explains that each of the inhabitants of Ludoška Street gets water from their own well.
According to February 2021 data, the oil wells in Palić are just some of the 776 active oil and gas wells in the territory of Vojvodina. That number is accompanied by the worst drinking water.
Official information of the Institute of Public Health Dr Milan Jovanović Batut shows that in 2019 out of the 43 tested waterworks in Vojvodina, just 10 had good drinking water. In the majority of cases, the Institute says, the water was turbid, contained ammonia, iron and bacteria. Furthermore, water in some parts of Vojvodina also contains toxic arsenic, as well as methane, which is exploited in Vojvodina.
In early October 2020, a video showing flammable water, which contained methane, appeared on social networks. The author of the video demonstrated how he set a stream of water from his bathroom faucet on fire with a lighter. The video was made in the village of Stajićevo, not far from Zrenjanin.
After the video was released, representatives of PUC Zrenjanin Waterworks and Sewerage issued a statement saying that the problem with methane in the water in Stajićevo, but also in the village of Belo Blato, had existed since the introduction of water supply in these parts.
Two months later there was an explosion at the water factory in Zrenjanin. The incident which left two workers injured, according to information from the factory, occurred precisely because of the presence of methane in the water.
During drilling, CINS’ interlocutors say, there may be a change in pressure in groundwater and methane may get mixed with water from different underground layers.
NIS representatives claim that the oil wells do not affect the quality of water.
“The structure of each well is made of several cross-sections of steel pipes which descend from the top to the bottom of the well. These steel pipes isolate all water-bearing layers, i.e. make the well hermetic, and there is no possibility of pollution of the water-bearing layers,” the company representatives say.
On the other hand, energy expert Aleksandar Kovačević says that the soil in this part of Serbia is like a sponge.
“Take a sponge and soak it in water. Drive a straw into it and pull a little water from some depth of that sponge. What is going to happen? That other water will settle by as much.”
That is why, as he puts it, any drilling in Vojvodina affects what the citizens drink from their taps.
“You extract gas or you extract oil and what happens? That reservoir is filled with water. That water, for example, if you’ve extracted oil from a greater depth, the water at shallower depths will leak down into that space and you will end up in a situation that where there was water, you have a gap there and gas will enter that gap,” says Kovačević.
Zvezdan Kalmar of the Center for Ecology and Sustainable Development (CEKOR) agrees with the claim that drilling can bother citizens.
“It is completely clear to us that there has to be an impact and those cracks on houses that happen, happen with settling, i.e. emptying (of aquifers) occurs. And when emptying occurs, there also has to be some kind of mixing (of layers, journalist’s note),” Kalmar underscores.
Environmental impact is (not) important
The Provincial Secretariat for Urban Planning and Environmental Protection is in charge of checking and monitoring the state of the environment in Vojvodina. Representatives of the institution told CINS they were not aware that any testing had been conducted regarding the impact of oil and natural gas wells on, among other things, drinking water in the province.
Officials of the Provincial Secretariat for Energy, Construction and Transportation confirm that there is no strategy or plan for managing oil and gas wells in Vojvodina and their impact on groundwater.
That is exactly what Kovačević perceives as the problem.
“A comprehensive strategy of use of resources in Vojvodina is necessary, which would then serve as grounds for building a mechanism of coordination and monitoring (of these activities, journalist’s note). This also implies big changes to financial arrangements in relation to fees for the use of resources,” Kovačević stresses.
CINS journalists did not get answers to questions about a potential strategy or research into the effect of oil and gas wells on water from the Ministry of Environmental Protection or the Ministry of Mining and Energy. There was no comment on some citizens’ allegations that the water quality was lower near the wells either.
The example of well testing in Palić, near the Miković family house, also shows how an environmental impact assessment is avoided.
According to the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment and the accompanying Regulation, projects pertaining to drilling for oil and gas exploration and exploitation do not necessarily require an environmental impact assessment study. This study should assess the damage some activities will cause to the environment and human health, as well as how to prevent or reduce it. The study is mandatory only in case of oil and gas extraction itself.
However, the law states that even in well testing the party responsible for the project, which in this case is NIS, is obliged to request an estimate from the Provincial Secretariat for Environmental Protection as to whether a study needs to be conducted or not.
After reports from citizens, the provincial environmental protection inspectorate in July 2020 first found that NIS had not requested that until then, and then eight months after the works started the Provincial Secretariat ordered the company to conduct the study.
NIS has failed to do so to date.
For energy expert Aleksandar Kovačević, the fact that environmental impact assessment studies are not conducted for well testing is shocking.
“It (NIS, journalist’s note) would have to perform exploration by using electronic devices, sonar, X-rays and various temperature sensors. Based on that research it would have to have some kind of plan of exploratory drilling and have an impact assessment study already for that story,” says Kovačević.
NIS officials say that they do not need that study for well testing under the Law on Mining and add that they will conduct one when they obtain data from the exploration.
Inspector Dragan Sekulić, who ordered NIS to request an estimate of whether it should conduct a study, points out the peculiarity of the situation, because there is a clash of two laws:
“When I reviewed the existing legislation, I deemed that they should do it (conduct the study, journalist’s note) after all. (…) Basically, in my opinion, they should always conduct that study when they are performing exploration.”
Fracking – unwanted in the EU, unlimited in Serbia
In the exploitation of natural gas and oil in Serbia, the hydraulic fracturing method or fracking is also applied. It is the technology of injecting large quantities of a mixture of water and other fluids under high pressure into the bedrock formations that contain fossil fuels. In this way the rocks are fractured, releasing oil and gas.
This technique can contaminate drinking water because the toxic fluids used can return to the surface and reach streams or rivers, and can also mix with groundwater.
“A large quantity of the fluid mixture which is inserted into the well returns to the surface. This fluid contains salt and heavy metal solutions, even radioactive substances,” explains energy expert Miodrag Kapor.
He talks about the other problems related to this type of exploitation – the noise and the destruction of roads, as well as the dust raised by the passage of a large number of trucks.
Over the last few years, many countries in Europe have temporarily suspended or completely banned fracking. Among them are France, Germany, Ireland and Bulgaria.
However, there are no limits for such methods in Serbia, Provincial Secretariat for Energy officials told CINS.
While NIS representatives say that fracking is applied in just a few oil fields, they also say that the environmental risk has been reduced to a minimum. They claim that this method is used only after it is determined that a well does not leak liquid into the soil.
NIS is owned by Russia’s Gazprom Neft (56%), the Republic of Serbia (30%) and small shareholders.