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Despite Living Atop A Gas Field, Romanian Villagers Are Still Burning Wood

"I have no one to ask to help me -- the young people have all left the villages," Mirela Dobrescu says.
"I have no one to ask to help me -- the young people have all left the villages," Mirela Dobrescu says.

C.A. ROSETTI, Romania -- Mirela Dobrescu lives atop natural gas reserves that a Romanian prime minister once called "the most important discovery since the revolution."

So why, the 68-year-old widow wondered aloud recently, had she just spent a whole month hauling a winter's worth of firewood -- one cartful at a time -- from her front gate to a shed in her backyard here in this communal village 100 or so kilometers from the capital, Bucharest?

"I'd switch to gas immediately," she said. "It's amazing." Her grown daughter in the city of Buzau, 30 kilometers away, has gas and it's "beautiful" and "clean," she said.

Dobrescu's frustration, in part, reflects a confluence of societal trends and geopolitical problems. From Romanians' ongoing urbanization, to unfulfilled dreams of connectivity and energy independence, to the fallout from a six-month-old war next door in Ukraine, the challenges are mounting for her and her fellow villagers.

If only a gas distribution network were built in hers and a handful of surrounding villages, she told RFE/RL's Romanian Service, her hardships would ease.

Instead, like half of Romania's 7 million households, she's reliant on seasonal stockpiles of firewood to heat her home. "It's hard for me here. I go in with wood into the house, take the ashes out of the stove, and make a mess," Dobrescu, who is retired, said.

"I have no one to ask to help me -- the young people have all left the villages." They want to live in the city, she added, "in decent conditions."

Buried 'Treasure'

Six years ago, state-owned Romgaz announced that two years of exploration had confirmed a massive deposit of around 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, worth tens of billions of dollars. The so-called Caragele gas field mostly lay under the six villages that make up the commune of C.A. Rosetti, in Buzau county in eastern Romania, near the Ukrainian border and the Black Sea.

Current Transport Minister Sorin Grindeanu, who was prime minister at the time, was the one who dubbed it "the most important discovery" since the fall of communism 2 1/2 decades before. It could "ensure Romania's energy independence," he assured the country. Extraction efforts began the following spring.

But all this time later, with energy dependence taking on whole new dimensions as the West tries to wean itself off Russian oil and gas in response to Moscow's decision to invade Ukraine, it has still extracted just 2 percent of the Caragele field.

Reports suggest that only small pockets of Caragele's deposits were extracted at depths of up to 3,500 meters, while Romgaz experts say most of the deposits lie at least 4,000 meters underground.

Romania consumes around 12.5 bcm a year of natural gas, 8 bcm-9 bcm of it extracted domestically and the other 3.5 bcm-4.5 bcm imported from Russia.

Spurred most recently by Russia's war on Ukraine, gas prices have roughly tripled since the initial assessment in 2017 of Caragele's value. At an estimated 30 bcm, the Caragele deposits thus represent at least six years' worth of the 3.5 bcm-4.5 bcm of gas purchased from Russia annually.

Romgaz declined to respond to RFE/RL's questions about why so little extraction work has been done, despite the potential upside for Romanian consumers, the economy, and the inhabitants of CA Rosetti and its fellow villages who could also profit financially.

The company has suggested that more intensive extraction will begin by early 2024 at the latest.

Romgaz declined to respond to RFE/RL's questions about why so little extraction work has been done.
Romgaz declined to respond to RFE/RL's questions about why so little extraction work has been done.

Energy Minister Virgil Popescu told RFE/RL's Romanian Service in August that "probably in 2023 we are talking about the first gas" from Caragele.

Marcel Ciolacu, leader of the senior ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and a prime minister-in-waiting under the current coalition agreement who is originally from nearby Buzau, estimated that Caragele's gas could come online in early 2024.

"Romania will have a surplus of natural gas, practically doubling its production well above the current domestic consumption requirement -- but also enough time to prepare to develop industries that will consume the gas in the country," Ciolacu said recently, adding, "Also, our country will become a provider of regional energy security."

Up In Smoke

Debates on energy alternatives to fossil fuels have intensified since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February set off a chain of unprecedented sanctions against Moscow and countermeasures that have contributed to skyrocketing energy prices.

Part of policymakers' calculus in Central and Southeastern Europe involves woodburning for home heating and cooking.

The European average for the proportion of households that use wood and other solid fuels is around 20 percent. But estimates are that about half of Romanian households use firewood for heating.

Bucharest had already pledged itself to more tightly regulate the burning of wood and other biomass from next year. In view of the war's knock-on effects, however, officials are now sending slightly different -- and frequently contradictory -- messages.

Environment Minister Tanczos Barna recently told RFE/RL's Romanian Service that his ministry was proposing a subsidy of 150 lei ($0.31) per cubic meter per month of firewood for households, up to 750 lei.

But the PSD and its finance minister have objected, saying they want the subsidy limited to the most vulnerable homes.

So Close, So Far

C.A. Rosetti Mayor Costel Craciun feels like his constituents are vulnerable enough.

Nearly 93 percent of villages and rural communities like his still lack connections to a gas network, according to a recent industry study.

"Here's the gas treasure," Craciun told RFE/RL's Romanian Service, "Or here's where [Romgaz] hopes it is!" He was stabbing at a map on his office wall, circling a wide swath of the plateau where his and five other villages sit atop around $90 billion worth of gas at today's prices.

Mayor Costel Craciun
Mayor Costel Craciun

He estimates that it would cost just $6 million or so to connect CA Rosetti to the gas network.

Experts say around 27 bcm of Caragele's 30 bcm of gas is exploitable. According to the Oil and Gas Employers' Federation, an industry alliance, all the villages in Romania combined would consume under 1 bcm per year if they were connected to the gas grid. So in theory, Caragele alone could meet every villagers' gas needs for nearly three decades.

But even in relatively rural Romania, villages like CA Rosetti are also a waning minority. Nearly half of Romanians -- around 9 million in a population of 19 million -- live in villages or other small communities. That's high by European standards -- 46 percent compared to the EU average of just 25 percent who don't live in bigger cities, according to the World Bank.

But it is 3 million fewer than three decades ago, according to data from Romania's National Institute of Statistics. And nearly 5 million of those rural residents are elderly, as younger generations leave in search of work or simply urban life in Romanian cities or abroad.

There's also an environmental aspect to the debate, even putting aside carbon emissions and other obvious contributors to climate change.

Romania has struggled for decades to combat legal and illegal deforestation. Official assessments of energy needs and strategies readily acknowledge gaps in the data.

Conservation group Greenpeace Romania's Ciprian Galusca told RFE/RL that Romania loses 13 hectares a day to logging. "The calculation is simple," Galusca said. "We have 38 million cubic meters of wood leaving the forest every year."

The problem, he adds, is that half of it simply disappears without a trace.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Marian Pavalasc of RFE/RL's Romanian Service
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    Marian Pavalasc

    Marian Pavalasc has been writing for RFE/RL's Romanian Service since January 2021. As a freelance journalist, he has focused on news and investigative reports. He started his journalism career as a student when he started writing for a daily newspaper in the eastern Romanian city of Galati.

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