ATHENS - If Greece’s unhappy Vrisoules get their way, Greece will stop plans to hunt for oil and gas in the seas and not work with foreign companies who want to drill there.
Named for the Ancient Greek word for natural springs that abound in Greek mountain areas and provide the watery source of life, they are young women in traditional dress, in black, wearing COVID-19 face masks who hand out flyers to shoppers stating their cause.
“Nature is our antidepressant,” and “My appearance is a political act,” read their slogans, reported Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in a feature in their tilting-at-windmills-in-a-hurricane hope.
They are going up against the powerful vested interests oil companies and capitalists and a New Democracy government forging ahead with plans to get as much oil and gas as it can from the seas, at the same time that Turkey wants to do so as well, around Greek islands.
They’ve been at it for three years, not relenting even during the pandemic, their cause a kind of environmentalist Pussy Riot rage against the machine using tactics such as interrupting politicians speeches with singing and dancing.
Their goal is to stop the hunt in the Ionian Sea off Greece’s west coast and around Crete, where Turkey said it will also go deep into the seas in a bid to find and extract energy.
They chose their name for what they said is earth’s real treasure, waters they said are being threatened by the prospect of drilling that a number of foreign companies, including Spain’s Repsol and the United States’ Exxon Mobil want to conduct in Greek seas.
That threatened Ionian islands, they said, that are a draw for tourism that attracts some 11 million people annually, almost 30 percent of the country’s biggest market of tourism that the government plans to reopen on May 15.
Besides that critical source of money that Greece needs to rebound from the pandemic, when and if it ever ends, they said that wildlife could be hurt if there are oil spills or drilling in their habitats.
One of them, high school teacher Eleftheria Tsouknaki told DW that she and a few friends started the group when one told them about fossil fuel exploration near their hometown of Ioannina -inland - and they quickly "understood the dangers."
HEAR US LOUD
To make others aware, they began a musical campaign, adding their voice to other environmentalists and groups who want the government to pull back its plan to allow drilling near some of the country’s iconic beauty spots, said DW.
The Greek and Spanish chapters of international conservation NGO WWF wrote to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis asking him to cancel all existing exploration concessions and forbid any new ones.
"It's an outdated political decision made with the wrong data a decade ago and is trapping the country in an energy system of high economic risk and high carbon intensity," the letter read.
Greece, with a half year of totally sunny days, has done relatively little to pursue solar power and still relies on coal to fuel electricity plants, wanting more fossil fuels even as the government is pushing electric cars.
Most troublesome to opponents of the energy hunt is fracking, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into shale rock at very high pressure to recover gas or oil, with worries it could leach into the soil and water.
Hellenic Hydrocarbon Resources Management (HHRM), which manages the country's hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation rights, says fracking isn't allowed in Greece. But activists and some political parties, like the Greens, claim the law leaves space for the practice.
"We're against fracking and we don't want the country to go back in time while the rest of the world is putting an end to it," Tsouknaki said.
Greece began selling oil and gas concessions when it tumbled in 2011 into an eight-year economic and austerity crisis, which required 326 billion euros ($384 million) in three bailouts, which ended Aug. 20, 2018.
The government was just accelerating a slow recovery when COVID-19 hit and was desperately seeking foreign investors scared off by the former ruling anti-business SYRIZA, especially wanting energy companies.
Mitsotakis’ staunchly pro-business government has opened protected areas to drilling at what critics said was an environment-be-damned approach to risky operations, wanting the revenues.
Now, said DW, some 10 percent of the country’s land is a target for hydrocarbon exploration and further plans for drilling although the European Union requires Greece to give up fossil fuels to cut emissions by 55 percent on 1990 levels by 2030.
The government does want to do more to harness the power of the sun that is in abundance even though few of the rooftops of Athens’ buildings show solar panels or attempts to use a free source of energy and end reliance on fossil fuels.
Aristofanis Stefatos, of HHRM said natural gas, which is less carbon-heavy than coal, also has a role to play as the country aims to ditch domestically produced brown coal by 2028, with Greece importing most of its natural gas.
"Given the high cost and the time required to develop alternative solutions, it is evident that we should try to develop the potential gas reserves in Greece as soon as possible," Stefatos told the site.
He said that infrastructure being developed now for natural gas could eventually be used for hydrogen generated from renewables: "Gas infrastructure sets the foundation for hydrogen, one of our best options for clean future fuels,” he insisted.
Environmental activists don’t agree.
"Gas is a bridge to nowhere," said Claudia Kemfert, head of the department Energy, Transportation, Environment at the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW Berlin), in a recent DW interview. "Instead of bridging technologies, we need future technologies, namely renewable energy."
Tsouknaki said she believes the energy hunt is just a disguised cover for greed and money. "Greece is being cut into blocks for hydrocarbon exploration and extraction," she said. "The whole Mediterranean basin is in danger, from Greece to Spain and northern Africa because of it."
Helen Briassoulis, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of the Aegean, said that air, soil and water pollution from drilling operations and chemical pollution from fracking could harm wildlife, land and water, putting jobs at risk in an area depending on tourism, fishing and farming.
"Such big-scale projects are like you're gambling with nature," Briassouli said. "Offshore drilling is a great disaster and I don't think there's been a lot of debate in Greece on what we'll do in the case of an accident."
But Stefatos cautioned against "hasty conclusions about freezing of the exploration activities," stressing that they were continuing in all other blocks, "albeit in some cases with some delays related mostly to the effects of the pandemic on-field operations."
Tsouknaki and her troupe said they won’t be drowned out in the din of energy companies sounding their case loud and clear to a government that wants energy and money. "No one should divide half a country from north to south in fields (for oil extraction,) especially in virgin areas and areas that might affect the sea and clean water reserves," Tsouknaki said.