US tells Bulgaria shale gas is safe

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US State Secretary Hillary Clinton lobbied for the development of shale gas in Bulgaria during a weekend visit, more than two weeks after the country's Parliament passed a moratorium on an industry where US major Chevron has big stakes.

A snow storm delayed Clinton's arrival in Sofia on Sunday (5 February) as gas supplies from Russia began returning to normal, having dropped by one-third due to extreme cold. The cold snap killed several people in Bulgaria in recent days, including eight who drowned after a dam burst on Monday (6 February).

Alongside Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, Clinton briefly addressed the Bulgarian press, emphasising the need of the country to achieve a higher degree of energy independence.

Bulgaria depends on Russia for 89% of its petrol, 100% of natural gas and 100% of the nuclear fuel needed for its Kozloduy power station. Another station is planned to be built at Belene, also with Russian technology, but the project has been frozen over a payment dispute.

'Environment comes first'

As allies, Bulgaria and the United States work side-by-side to diversify and secure energy supplies, including in the nuclear sector, Clinton said. "We are partners in helping to advance Bulgaria’s energy independence and security and in protecting the beautiful Bulgarian environment," she said.

Borissov too stressed that environmental concerns were the priority for his country. Just as for nuclear energy, shale gas projects will remain frozen until the government is capable of convincing society that those technologies are safe, Borissov said.

On 18 January, the Bulgarian Parliament overwhelmingly voted a moratorium, suspending shale gas exploration. The decision came after massive street protests, triggered by the announcement that Chevron had won a tender and received a permit for exploration of shale gas in northeast Bulgaria.

Shale gas reserves in Bulgaria remain unproven, but according to some estimates, could provide for the energy needs of the country for several centuries.

Clinton didn't publicly pronounce "shale gas", but US Ambassador James Warlick said Bulgaria was paying four time more for gas than US customers. In recent years, shale gas has become a game changer in the US energy industry, turning the country from a gas importer into a gas exporter.

The US is not putting pressure on Bulgaria to change its moratorium decision, but Washington hopes that the issue would be objectively addressed, Warlick said, as quoted by Dnevnik, the EURACTIV partner in Bulgaria.

Warlick also said that the US company Westinghouse would be interested in building a seventh nuclear reactor at the Kozloduy power station, provided that Bulgaria would consider such an option.

Building an additional reactor at Kozloduy is seen by many as a more economical alternative to building a new nuclear station at Belene, together with the necessary infrastructure.

Clinton announced that Richard Morningstar, US special envoy for Eurasian energy, would visit Sofia in the following week for discussions "about how we can be more helpful in protecting your environment and advancing your energy security goals".

Russia's Gazprom chief executive Alexey Miller is also due to travel to Sofia this week. At recent meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Miller took instructions that the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline should start in 2012. Bulgaria is key to South Stream, as the pipeline would run under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, with one branch going to Greece and Italy, and another to Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria.

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 the world's largest economy natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.

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