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What makes Estonia unique worldwide? Some might say it is that it is the only country where both the prime minister and the president of the Republic are women. This is true but, as someone else might point out, it also has one of the biggest gender gaps in the European Union. Or, one might argue that this small Baltic republic has distinguished itself over the last decade by being digitally and technologically advanced with steadily growing numbers of start-ups. Again this is true. But it has also translated into the inability of young people to enjoy the public space, so leading them to isolate themselves behind virtual profiles and chat groups. Finally we might mention its primeval forests. But, again, if the only reference to them are their rituals, spirits and legends, leaving out all the crimes and the quantity of business that revolves around them, they are better left alone.
In all this, however, there is one great absentee. If Estonia were to be assigned a national symbol, it would not be any of the above. Have you ever heard of shale? “When you mention bituminous shale, people immediately think of shale oil or shale gas derived from fracking (hydraulic fracturing), but they are two completely different things,” explains Madis Vasser, spokesperson for the Estonian Green Movement. at the start of our inquiry. “Our shale is a sedimentary rock that was at the bottom of the oceans for millennia and has been brought to the surface by humans to make two things out of it. You can burn it directly to get electricity, or heat it to high temperatures and produce oil shale.”
The start of this industry dates back to the 1920s, but it is amazing that it went unnoticed for so long.”It’s an exclusively Estonian problem. Not even China, so far as we know, uses it so widely,” continues Vasser. “It is an inefficient and highly polluting fuel and yet, for some strange reason, Estonia has become its leading producer.”
Partly out of curiosity, and partly to understand how Estonia is coming to terms with a Europe increasingly determined to head the race against time to curb global warming, we flew up there. We drove to the Ida-Viruma region, the last strip of land before Russia. Here the bituminous shale energy industry developed, and here its announced banning risks creating tensions that are not just social but ethnic, given the disproportion between the 80% of Russian-speaking citizens, widely employed in the sector, and the remaining Estonian minority.
When, in the 1930s, the Soviet Union, of which Estonia was a part, suffered an energy crisis following World War I, it had no choice but to take advantage of the resources and experience in processing shale in this small Baltic country. Although it does not have the same caloric value as coal, shale is present in enormous quantities in the Estonian subsoil all the way to St. Petersburg (which is nearer to Ida Viruma than Tallinn, the capital). It can be used to produce both electricity and crude oil, a factor that still makes it unique among fossil fuels. An unmissable opportunity.
The shale industry has experienced a rapid surge. While thousands of Russian citizens moved in various waves to Estonia, to make up for the lack of labour in the local factories and mines, many Estonian citizens from Ida Viruma were forcibly removed and employed in labour camps in Siberia, gradually changing the region’s demographic structure. Meanwhile, the plants worked night and day, ensuring the country’s energy independence in a short time, to the point where it became possible to export and sell electricity beyond its borders.
The town of Kivioli, whose name literally means “burning rock”, was built to house the men, women and families of those working in the shale mill. Today it hardly reflects the enthusiasm that reigned in the Soviet era. Of the 13,400 inhabitants at that time, only 4,000 remain. There are some who claim that among the names currently registered, many belong to people who have left, and there are really no more than 3,500 people living here today. Our impression, after a few days spent there, is of apathy mixed with desolation.
The only bar-restaurant is the one adjoining the factory, and there both the workers and some sporadic locals go to wind down. Even in summer, when the sun sets after 10pm, the owner closes its doors at 5pm, after which there isn’t a soul in sight. The only amusement for the few young people left in Kivioli is sipping soft drinks (Estonian law forbids the sale of takeaway alcohol after 10pm, ed.) at one of the many petrol stations.
“Kivioli used to be teeming with life,” says Sorkis Tatevoskian, one of the most authoritative voices among the Russian-speakers in the town, as he enjoys filtering the black tea typical of his homeland. “Since the factory started working at a reduced capacity, there are wild animals running around everywhere, showing that nature is taking over, but also that human life is failing.”
As you walk through the township, you coud be in any humdrum village in the Po Valley. The Kivioli factory – managed since 2013 by the Estonian company Alexela – has the unkempt look of the past, embodying all its inhabitants’ nostalgia. At the main entrance, the date 1964 set in brick marks the foundation of the power station (now closed) and refinery, not of the open pit mine which goes back much earlier to 1922. On entering we find ourselves in a large forecourt, where there are tufts of grass and muddy puddles among the stones, with badly traced paths branching off to buildings with barred windows, broken glass, and peeling, dilapidated walls. There is no one around, but the noise of machinery programmed to run night and day echoes all around us.
The Kivioli factory is the smallest of the three involved in the production of oil shale. The state company Eesti Energia (EE) is the biggest, followed at some distance by the private company Viru Keemia Grupp (VKG). The substantial difference between the first and the other two big names in the sector is that in 2019 Kivioli had to give up producing electricity, as too costly for its owners, while EE and VKG still function, albeit at reduced capacity, as energy reserves for periods of maximum demand, like summer, winter and the current and prolonged global gas crisis. Furthermore, although Kivioli contributes only 10% to the national total of oil shale extraction, it covers an area filled almost to the surface with oil shale. Today, whatever it does not refine and sell abroad as liquid fuel for the international maritime sector (the only one not yet subject to clear guidelines on the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels to international limits, ed.), is sold to other companies.
The heart of the plant are two adjacent high-rise buildings. In the first, a long staircase enables you to follow the journey of the lumps of shale in real time, from when they are dropped from the cranes parked outside, to the moment they disappear back into large black tubes. Despite the slope and the anti-Covid mask, the higher we climb, the faster the pace becomes. The air is thick with dust and grit. Our clothes become covered with a reddish blanket, which luckily comes off when we finally go outside and the pouring rain washes it away. We take shelter in the next building. The colours and the quality of the air change, for the worse. Huge generators make a hellish noise, and the higher you go from floor to floor, the hotter and more humid the air becomes. The furnaces turn into black cauldrons, where the brownish lumps of shale are roasted at high temperatures, until they release gushes of sparks. We don’t need to be scientists to realise it would be better to cut our stay here short.
“The company told us that the situation is so environmentally uncertain, that it doesn’t feel like investing in machinery or anything. Not to mention the banks, which don’t even want to hear from us,” the managing director of the Kivioli refinery, Priit Oruma, tells us in his office, the only modern room in the complex, while playing with a piece of shale as if it were an anti-stress doll. The first crisis to hit the sector was in the early 1990s, when the USSR was collapsing and Estonia gained independence. Shale production fell by 50% due to the sudden collapse in electricity demand. But Oruma speaks of the European Union Emissions Trading System (ETS), introduced in 2005 to limit the production of greenhouse gases as the main causes of global warming. This measure has been felt particularly since 2019, when the price of carbon dioxide soared from 5 to 25 euros per ton and up to almost 50 euros today. This seriously damaged the shale industry, known for its high carbon intensity. “This not only jeopardises the fate of 500 workers, but also the whole town of Kivioli, largely dependent on this sector,” concludes Oruma. He expresses a sentiment shared by many, who doubt that there are any suitable alternatives to oil shale.
We decide to get back in the car and relax with the (few) attractions that Ida Viru offers. It takes very little to realise that something is wrong. Estonia is a completely flat country, made rather less monotonous by its expanses of forest, but not so much as to host a hill several meters high. And yet you can see several in the distance. How is that possible? “Shale is inefficient. Whenever it is burned, it produces piles of ash, which year after year form these huge mountains,” explains Madis Vasser, a spokesman for the Green Movement, one of the leading advocates for the complete closure of the shale industry- Until December 2019, shale ash was classified as dangerous waste but, when coal residues were also normalised, the shale lobby fought to have this infamous label lifted. “Our mountain has been converted into a ski centre. It can’t be that dangerous, can it?,” Oruma jokes when we ask his opinion. “In reality, it’s difficult to establish what the real risks to the environment are, since Estonia is the only country to make such extensive use of shale, excluding China, but certainly the mountain that is still burning is very polluting. The people who live near it have complained several times about the air being unbreathable,” continues Vasser, receiving the tacit support of Oruma. “The same goes for the water. In some cases it transports the ashes instead of the conveyor belt, and it’s dangerously alkaline.”
Another mountain of ash rises not far from the immense and glittering Enefit Power plant, the largest Estonian energy producer (with three thermoelectric power stations, three factories and two mines) owned by state-owned Eesti Energia. Alongside it is an expanse of lakes with crystal-clear water. We are very close to the city of Narva, on the border with Russia. It’s hard to find a parking spot. Families with children, couples in love and tourists from various parts of Estonia have gathered on the banks to take selfies with a scene behind them that would be the envy of Caribbean atolls.
Vasser again breaks the spell. “I agree that these lakes are wonderful, but you’d better not dare to dip even a finger in them, because you’d risk getting burnt,” he quickly warns us. According to Arles Taal, a member of the Enefit board, the lakes are located in a “monitored” area, but since there is no sign of fences, cameras or any other security measures, we struggle to understand how. On the one hand, some manipulations of nature due to the all too long-establishedshale industry have become one of the most sought-after tourist attractions. On the other, even when the aquifers and agricultural resources of so many people have been jeopardised to extract and produce this fuel, the price to pay for the locals never seems to have been too high.
Somehow shale has become part of the identity of its people, though on an ideological rather than a factual level, as the number of employees in factories keeps falling from year to year. But it is also true that the 3,500 people still employed in them earn 1,663 euros a month, a third more than their peers, and enjoy a lifestyle far better than in the rest of the region, which suffers from a large deficit and a 14% unemployment rate (compared to 4.5% nationwide). Although the death of shale had been on the table for some time, well before the Green Deal imposed precise terms on the use of fossil fuels in the EU, the Estonian government has decided to make the best of a bad job for a long time, hardening many people’s attitudes.
“In a way it’s like grandma’s house,” explains Michel Khangur, an ecologist and professor at the University of Tallinn. “You have to keep it standing because of the investments you have made and, in this case, for the sake of its close ties to politics and the Russian minority, whose welfare depends on this industry. In reality it’s a farce and it would take so little to close everything and change things for the better.” Now the deadline for change has been imposed from above, and one day it will have to come. But you can’t help wondering whether the inhabitants of Ida Viruma are completely wrong to fear that such a sudden energy transition could come about without irremediably crushing them.