STA, 12 November 2018 - Joško Knez, the director general of the Environment Agency (ARSO), stepped down on Monday, over an internal review of procedures for granting environmental permits for a controversial Ascent Resources gas extraction project in the far north-east of the country.
According to a report by the news portal Siol, Knez has resigned because irregularities were uncovered in the review ordered by the new Environment Minister Jure Leben last month.
Leben ordered the oversight of procedures for extracting gas in the Petišovci area by the UK's Ascent Resources and its Slovenian partner Geoenergo. The latter is owned by energy companies Petrol and Nafta Lendava, which are in majority ownership of the state.
According to a recent report by investment research firm Morningstar, Ascent Resources had received "repeated" private assurances from senior government officials, especially at the Environment Agency, that it would be getting the permit soon.
Apparently the review struck a nerve and the UK-based company launched an offensive against Slovenia, and Leben in particular.
At the end of October, Ascent Resources said it was mulling taking Slovenia to "EU courts" over the delay, while the minister has had to face an onslaught from shareholders and the management of the UK company.
Ascent Resources director and shareholder Colin Hutchinson tweeted that the company "invested EUR 50m in the project to date and will not walk away. The permitting system in the country is in need of urgent reform and foreign investors should be very wary of investing until this happens".
However, the Environment Ministry said today that "today's report corroborates that the minister's suspicions have been warranted", as the principles of independence and autonomy of ARSO were violated in the two procedures.
Moreover, the report says that "persons from abroad apparently do not find unacceptable and contentious putting pressure on Slovenian officials and are willing to repeat them".
The findings of the review will be forwarded to the relevant authorities, including "all the efforts to put pressure on the ministry during the review".
Just today, three non-parliamentary parties and several environmental NGOs urged Foreign Minister Miro Cerar to summon UK Ambassador Sophie Honey over lobbying for the UK company.
The Pirates, Solidarity, and the United Left and Workers' Labour Party (ZL-DSD) alliance, accuse Honey of lobbying and putting pressure on Slovenian authorities to secure the environmental permit for fracking in the Petišovci area.
Ascent Resources claims it would use hydraulic stimulation and not fracking to extract gas in Petišovci. This was corroborated by Geoenergo, which said that the method used in Slovenia would differ from fracking as used in the US significantly.
The procedure, "cannot and must not be equalised with the hydraulic treatment or fracturing of shale ... There are significant differences between the procedures in Slovenia and those in the US ... that basically stem from the difference in the geological profile of the rock".
But the environmental alliance is unconvinced. "We're witnessing a reality show where multinationals are treating us as natives from the most underdeveloped countries and heaping alternative truths on us in line with the worst case of fake news," environmental activist Gorazd Marinček told the press today.