Will Hillary Clinton Lobby for Chevron, Shale Gas in Bulgaria?
The unexpected, much discussed visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Bulgaria over the coming weekend is set to bring to the table a string of burning global and bilateral issues.
High on the agenda are developments in Syria, where violence seems to have escalated to a boil, as the embattled Bashar Al-Assad regime struggles to keep power, as well as the latest tensions around the Iranian nuclear program.
Syria and Iran have been close partners for decades in the most recent history; both have had a poor record with relations with the West, and a much nicer time with Russia.
Bulgaria's position on both Syria and Iran has not been clearly stated yet, and it will be of great interest to the country's American partners to finally learn about it.
Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolay Mladenov, on his part, has stated he will put another, less universal issue (still one important to Bulgaria), namely the creation of a visa-free regime with the USA.
Wednesday Mladenov refused to specify the agenda for the meeting, saying it will be "very broad" and include all issues of importance between the two partners.
Clinton's visit, however, is highly timely on another count, being announced just days after the Bulgarian Parliament passed a decision for an all-out ban on shale gas exploration and production in the country.
Over the summer of 2011, the Bulgarian cabinet had granted US energy giant Chevron a permit to explore for shale gas in a large segment of north-eastern Bulgaria.
But environmentalists and ordinary citizens stated large protests against the technology, which they view as environmentally hazardous, as undisclosed chemicals are pumped into the ground at exceeding pressures to release natural gas.
This, they argue, is extremely dangerous for groundwater, especially in a region with traditionally strong agriculture as north-eastern Bulgaria's Dobrudzha.
The exploration for shale gas has been thoroughly banned in France, suspended in parts of the UK – and in a number of US states - over similar warnings, in spite of the fact that shale gas production revolutionized the gas market in the States in the last few years, making it from a net important to self-sufficient.
Protests in Bulgaria led to an unexpected reversal of the permit decision of Bulgaria's center-right GERB cabinet, which notwithstanding has a comfortable number of MPs in Parliament, when Parliament voted the shale gas ban.
The relationship between Hillary Clinton's visit and the interests of US corporation Chevron to Bulgaria might be purely speculative, but according to the US Department of State's official release, the issue of "energy security" will be put on the agenda.
And then, there is another important factor in the picture – the undiplomatic behavior of US ambassador to Sofia James Warlick, who himself was the person who first presented Cheveron's interest in Bulgarian shale gas back in 2010.
Since then, Warlick has led a consistent campaign of pushing Chevron in the center of public attention which unfortunately culminated in a crescendo around the January 18 shale gas ban.
The US ambassador made key TV appearances before and after that date, arguing that it is plain sillines to give up such a lucrative proposal that might satisfy Bulgaria's natural gas needs for decades on.
This rhetoric was quickly picked up by Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov and cabinet ministers, who suggested that the Parliament ban on shale gas was all too hasty.
Minister of Economy and Energy Traicho Traikov went even as far as to suggest that environmentalist groups opposing shale gas might have been financed by Russian gas giant Gazprom, a ludicrous lead taken up by President Rosen Plevneliev in his Monday interview for Financial Times Deuschland.
Gazprom is to account for more than 90% of natural gas supply for Bulgaria, with which it has cherished longterm contracts. At the same time, Gazprom is using conventional gas extraction methods, and has spoken out against shale gas on environmental grounds, which analysts have dismissed as being motivated by competition with US companies.
Gazprom interests and arguably hypocritical warnings aside, evidence of the hazards of shale gas exploration and production is overwhelming, mandating at least the use of special caution.
Then there is the issue of using energy corporations as tools of global influence on the part of not only Russia, but also the USA.
True, Chevron, unlike Gazprom, is not a state-owned company, but this does not disqualify it as an effective purveyor of American interests abroad.
Ambassador Warlick's staunch preaching of the company's interests – at times patronizing and disrespectful of the very laws in Bulgaria – is but an instance substantiating that claim.
A simple Google search will let you know that former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had served on Chevron's board of directors, and even for a short time had a Chevron tanker named after her, before assuming office (that is, if you did not already know that).
Current Secretary of State Clinton does not have a record of close ties with Chevron. In August 2009, she inaugurated a large-scale investment partnership between Chevron and USAID in Angola.
Saturday and Sunday she will not do an analogous thing in Bulgaria. But she definitely has the means to sway the opinions of Bulgaria's inconsistent and slapdash rulers back in favor of shale gas.
It is yet to be seen whether Bulgarians, under the pretence of throwing off dependence on Russian Gazprom, will choose a similar dependence on US Chevron, and let foreign corporate and geostrategic interests ruin their nature.