In a widely expected U-turn, Romanian authorities yesterday (31 January) gave the American energy giant Chevron the certificates it needed to start exploring for shale gas in the eastern part of the country.
Shale gas is an 'unconventional' fossil fuel that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. Until recently, no method of safely transporting it to the surface existed.
However, by pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure via a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', energy companies believe they have found a part of the answer to Europe's energy security problems.
The method remains intensely controversial because of its possible environmental risks, including poisoning groundwater and higher greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas.
To proponents, shale gas represents a hitherto untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. At the moment the continent depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in recent years.
In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.
The Romanian authorities reversed their decision from last April to suspend Chevron from gas exploration activities.
The decision takes place nine months after protests in southeast Romania, in particular in the town of Vama Veche, where shale gas exploration is due to take place.
The country’s senate overwhelming rejected a motion to ban shale gas exploration. Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who took office in May, had proposed the legislation when his party was in opposition.
After its re-election in December, the Ponta government's return to shale gas exploration comes hardly as a surprise. On 25 January, Ponta said he supported shale gas, according to the Romanian agency Hotnews.
“Exploration, yes. After confirmation of the existence or non-existence of shale gas, which would take appreciatively five years, we will take the decision which presumes yes, we will exploit shale gas, while respecting all European and world standards for environmental protection,” Ponta said.
Chevron obtained zoning certificates in eastern Romania enabling it to explore for shale gas, despite controversy about the effect of the aggressive extraction process - called fracking - on the environment, according to local authorities quoted by Agence France-Presse yesterday.
The next step for Chevron is to obtain a construction permit before it can start exploratory drilling, the head of Vaslui County council, Dumitru Buzatu, said.
The EU has so far declined to comment on individual decisions by member countries to ban or to develop shale gas. According to a recent study published by the European Commission, there is no need for specific EU legislation on shale gas, at least for the time being.