The information that VW is unlikely to build its new plant in Bulgaria (ed. – in mid June) has been accepted as a small national catastrophe – the media and social networks are flooded with grim comments about our “failed” country. I somewhat agree with this interpretation – any failure to attract a large investor should be seen in a similar way. VW may eventually come, but even now I can still see the positive side of the whole story: thanks to the avalanche of comments and keeping fingers crossed, Bulgarian society has finally begun to realize how crucial for the development of the country big industrial investments are. It was high time. Because the last years are full of examples where not only did we not fight for them, but we even chased them out pretty actively.
I will only comment on the most significant and famous case – the suspension of the Chevron shale gas exploration project. For the ones who cannot remember, I would like to give a quick reminder: in the summer of 2011, the company paid USD 30 million for a shale gas exploration permit in northeast Bulgaria. A few days later a propaganda campaign was launched against the project. A specific coalition was formed, from left and green to far-right activists, organizations and parties united by the “cause” to prevent not only extraction but even shale gas exploration studies. The ‘frightening’ campaign began on the Internet and social media and quickly gained daily presence in all national media and protest parades with tens of thousands of participants in all major cities in the country. The rational dialogue was completely silenced. Experts’ opinions on the subject – geologists, engineers, economists – remained practically unheard. As a result, in January 2012 the Parliament imposed a moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing technology, via which gas can be explored and extracted from shales. About two years later Chevron left Bulgaria.
In Texas and Pennsylvania, for instance, people not only get rich but they also live in an increasingly cleaner environment.
Today, we moan about the lost benefits of a company not coming here, for the attraction of which we are willing to pay hundreds of millions, whereas back then we actively chased out another similar company that had even paid to be here. Without underestimating the potential benefits of VW coming to Bulgaria, I must point out that the missed benefits of expelling Chevron were actually much greater. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bulgaria is likely to have shale gas reserves of 481 billion cubic meters and more than 200 million barrels of shale oil. These are huge quantities for our needs, which allow not only for the use of cheap and clean energy, but also for the explosive development of many traditional industries for Bulgaria, for which gas is a raw material – production of fertilizers, plastics, chemicals, fibers and more. According to an estimate carried out by the economist Krasen Stanchev’s team, the full effects of a possible extraction on our economy over a 30-year period range from EUR 9.5 billion in investments, 26,000 jobs and 18.3% higher GDP at the end of the period (conservative option) to EUR 27 billion in investments, 39 thousand jobs and 26.6% higher GDP (full potential). I know, it is difficult also for me to imagine such numbers!
The above-mentioned calculations do not even include difficult to measure benefits such as energy security and independence from an otherwise sister nation, as well as reduction of air pollution, which contributes to the premature death of about 10,000 people each year and is largely due to burning solid fuels by households. Urban district heating and direct use of gas for heating are the clean alternatives which are widely used in Europe. Assuming that a significant proportion (over 50%) of solid fuel consumers in major cities switch to TPP, gas or electricity, Bulgaria could get rid of the dirty air problem and let each of us live for about 2 years longer and healthier. Notice that a project that has been rejected for the sake of an imaginary fear of an “environmental catastrophe” actually provides a direct path to solving the country’s most significant environmental problem. Is this really not a paradox?
Bulgarian society has finally begun to realize how crucial for the development of the country big industrial investments are.
The war against own production of gas did not end with Chevron’s expulsion. At the end of 2017, after a similar campaign intended to spread mass fear, General Toshevo municipality held a referendum to prevent a gas project on its territory. Note that this was a completely standard project, without fracking, and not for exploration, but for real extraction. Under such “public” pressure, RIEW-Varna rejected the EIA Report of the investor and practically stopped the project. Apparently, we don’t want to hear about own gas production at all? And what if Shell also finds something significant in the sea by chance, how will we react?
Also at the end of 2017, the government used the 2012 Moratorium as a pretext to refuse permission to conduct a scientific expedition to study gas hydrates in the Black Sea, requested by a German scientific institute. The forecast resources were over 4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas that could lie on the bottom of the sea in the Bulgarian water area. I would like to make a hypothetical comparison just to give you an idea of how much this is: if Khan Asparuh had found this quantity of natural gas back in 681 and since then Bulgaria had been consuming as much gas a year as it is today, we would have just reached the point of exhaustion. We obviously don’t want to know if this gas is really there?
Gas projects are just the tip of the iceberg of expelled significant investments. From prevention of billion-euro metal ore extraction projects, through virtually every energy recovery project and banning GMO cultivation, to the delay or final hindering of dozens of other infrastructure, factories or resorts projects – today, anti-business activism in Bulgaria is reaching scary dimensions that literally stop the technological progress and economy in the country. Yes, indisputably active civil society is an extremely important element in the formula of any well-functioning democracy. To serve the interests of the public, however, is an honor that places very high demands on the activist. First, they must be well informed and understand that without industry and investments, there are no jobs or high standards of living. And since I am convinced that many people will take the “ecological” card out, I would like to point out – absolutely every industrial project, including a car factory, has a direct negative impact on the environment. However, it can always be managed and minimized. This is exactly what happens everywhere in the US where there is significant oil and gas production. In Texas and Pennsylvania, for instance, people not only get rich but they also live in an increasingly cleaner environment. The greater the economic impact of an investment, the more significant the indirect environmental benefits are – it is only in this way that we can have the means to afford clean air, water, soil and nature conservation. Not by chance, the richest countries in the world are also the cleanest. Or is anyone doubting the simple fact that Switzerland is greener than Pakistan?
Yes, our country is failing. Not so much in attracting new investors, but in creating good business conditions and public awareness of the acceptance of companies and industries that are already here. Because how would Bulgaria benefit from their development and success if we force them to invest their profits abroad? It’s high time to change that!