Romania’s Senate has overwhelming rejected a motion to ban shale gas exploration and exploitation by hydraulic fracturing, marking an about-face for Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social Democrat party (PSD) that introduced the draft law in March.
The 21 June vote of 53 to 11 with nine abstentions included came seven weeks after the Ponta government took office. Ponta’s party had proposed the legislation when it was in opposition.
Nationwide protests took place in the country in April and May, including southeastern Romania, where the shale gas exploration by Chevron was due to begin. Similar protests on the other side of the border, in Bulgaria, have also upset plans by US energy company Chevron to start drilling.
The left-leaning coalition USL, which is dominated by the PSD, won the local elections held on 10 June, largely riding on the environmentalist wave. The former cabinet of Mihai R?zvan Ungureanu supported shale gas development.
In an interview with news media on 22 June, Ponta explained the position taken by the government.
"There is a moratorium [on shale gas] until December," the prime minister said, adding that his cabinet would make known its final position following the conclusion of the moratorium period, which comes after the parliamentary elections due in autumn.
The election date has not yet been set.
Ponta was quoted as saying that the final decision would seek to balance environmental protection with energy needs.
Ponta noted that the exploration operations that began last year would not be completed until 2018.
"In six years, technology will evolve over Europe and a decision will be taken according to the findings,” he told journalists.
Ponta also insisted that Romania wanted to align itself with EU legislation. "We want to be neither the only country to accept shale gas tapping nor the only one to oppose it."
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.
The US ambassador to Romania, Mark Gitenstein, recently told the website Ziare.com that Romania had first to find out whether it had shale gas, and then decide if it wanted to pay, like the US customers, five times less for shale gas compared to imported natural gas.
“If you want to pay those high prices, then you shouldn’t develop shale gas,” the diplomat said.
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.