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Bulgaria joins France in fracking ban

Parliament has banned hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Bulgaria, making it the second European country, after France, to impose a moratorium on the technique

On 18 January, parliament voted 116-6 to pass the law banning fracking, which effectively halts shale-gas exploration in the country before it even began. The vote came just days after thousands of protesters gathered in more than a dozen cities across the country demanding a ban on fracking, which they contended poses an unacceptable environmental risk.

The ban throws into doubt the plans of a number of operators that had acquired exploration licences in the country, including supermajor Chevron. The government has said companies can retain their licences, but the terms of those agreements will be amended to ban fracking. Under the new law, violating that ban comes with a Lev100 million ($65 million) fine.

But the vote is unlikely to mark the end of the fracking debate in Bulgaria. Even as prime minister Boyko Borisov announced the ban, he stressed the role that shale gas could play in helping the country reduce its reliance on Russian gas imports. He also seemed to leave the door open to a reversal of the ban if studies into fracking prove the well-completion process poses minimal environmental risks.

Bulgaria produced just 353.15 million cubic feet (cf) of gas in 2010, less than 1% of its 77 billion cf of consumption for the year, according to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. The rest of the country's demand is met by Russian gas imports. This reliance was exposed when the country was particularly hard hit by the supply disruptions that followed the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in January 2009.

‘Wait-and-see’

Chevron, which was awarded a licence to explore the Novi Pazar shale-gas field in northeastern Bulgaria in May 2011, was not planning to carry out its fracking operations until at least 2015. Chevron has remained mostly quiet since the vote, but did tell local reporters it hoped to win over the Bulgarian public, indicating it would take a “wait-and-see” approach before deciding on its next move.

Bulgaria’s ban mirrors one imposed by France in July 2011. The votes reflect an increasingly contentious debate over fracking and the hunt for shale gas in Europe that has pitted the continent’s energy security against environmental concerns. While France and Bulgaria have clearly come down against the use of fracking, Poland continues to press ahead with exploration.

Riding high on their victory in Bulgaria, the coalition of environmental groups that led the protests in Bulgaria vowed to spread their message to neighbouring Romania and beyond, ensuring the debate over fracking and shale gas continues to rage across Europe.

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