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Bulgaria blocks shale-gas drilling

Chevron must wait until at least 2015 to assuage environmental concerns

Chevron cannot start shale-gas drilling in Bulgaria until 2015 at the earliest. By then, the government hopes to have assuaged environmental concerns over hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

According to Delyan Dobrev, Bulgaria’s deputy economy and energy minister, the US company plans to drill two exploration wells in 2015 and another two in 2016 – providing no moratorium on shale-gas drilling is in place at the time. Until then, Chevron would be carrying out and analysing seismic surveys of the Novi Pazar field in northeastern Bulgaria. The minister was speaking earlier this week, after a meeting with Chevron representatives, regional officials and sector experts.

Both the government and Chevron will be keen to use the intervening period to persuade sceptics within the country that fracking, integral to shale-gas extraction, is safe, as Bulgaria seeks to meet growing demand for gas both domestically and in neighbouring countries. According to Dobrev, Chevron plans to launch a public-information campaign to allay fears over the environmental impact of its plans.

Recent months have been marked by a series of small, but vociferous protests, triggered by concerns about the potential damage caused by fracking, mirroring concern elsewhere in Europe. The latest took place last Saturday in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and the northeastern towns of Dobrich and Varna – close to Chevron’s shale acreage.

Protestors have numbered only a few hundred, although organisers say more than 10,000 people have signed a petition demanding an immediate moratorium on shale drilling, followed by a legal ban. The government has rejected opposition demands for a drilling moratorium, while the government has asked the European Commission for advice on environmental approvals.

Chevron was awarded a five-year permit to explore Novi Pazar earlier this year, although a definitive agreement on production between the firm and the government has yet to be reached. Energy minister Traicho Traikov said the full terms of any agreement with Chevron were unlikely to be revealed, because of corporate confidentiality.

Bulgaria wants to maximise domestic gas production to reduce its near-total dependence on Russian imports. Novi Pazar could hold as much as 10 billion cubic metres (cm) of gas – enough to cut Russian gas imports by more than 75%, to 500,000 cm/y, within three years of production starting up, says the government.

The country also aims to boost conventional gas production. Traikov said output from the Deventsi section of the northern Koinare gasfield could start once an environmental-impact study is completed in mid-2012.

The discovery was made by Direct Petroleum – taken over by Canada’s Transatlantic Petroleum in early 2011. Transatlantic, which is test drilling, has applied for a production concession and said in November that it was looking for a partner to develop the acreage. Koinare is estimated to hold around 34 billion cm of gas and could produce 1 billion cm/y from the Deventsi section, according to the government.

Most of the country’s existing gas production (around 1.27 million cm/d) comes from shallow, offshore Black Sea fields, operated by Melrose Resources. Production started in late 2010.

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