Chevron halts Romania shale work after protest

Reuters

* Residents oppose shale exploration

* Protesters and riot police turn out in equal numbers

* Romania holds estimated 51 trln cubic feet of shale gas

By Bogdan Cristel

PUNGESTI, Romania, Dec 7 (Reuters) - U.S. oil major Chevron halted exploration works for shale gas in easternRomania for the second time in two months on Saturday afteranti-fracking protesters broke through wire mesh fences aroundthe site.

Thousands of people have rallied across Romania in recentmonths to protest against government support for shale gasexploration and separate plans to set up Europe's largest opencast gold mine in a small Carpathian town.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Romaniacould potentially hold 51 trillion cubic feet of shale gas,which would cover domestic demand for more than a century.

Chevron won approval to drill exploratory wells in the smalltown of Pungesti in the impoverished county of Vaslui in Octoberbut had to halt work soon after when residents blocked access tothe site. It resumed work on Dec. 2.

On Saturday, about 300 riot police were deployed inPungesti, 340 km (210 miles) northeast of capital Bucharest, totry to prevent an equal number of protesters, mostly localresidents, from entering the Chevron site. Some broke throughinto the site, however.

The activists chanted "Stop Chevron" and held banners saying"No drilling allowed here". Dozens were detained by police.

Chevron said some equipment had been damaged on the site."Chevron can today confirm it has suspended activities ... as aresult of unsafe conditions generated by unlawful and violentprotester activities," it said in a statement emailed toReuters.

"Our priority is to conduct our activities in a safe andenvironmentally responsible manner consistent with the permitsunder which we operate, however this was not possible today."

FRACKING DIVIDE

Shale gas faces opposition due to concerns around hydraulicfracturing, or fracking, the process of injecting water andchemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations topush out gas.

Critics, including the Pungesti protesters, say it canpollute water supplies and trigger small earthquakes. Advocatessay it has a strong safety record and point to countries likethe United States, where extensive fracking has driven downenergy prices.

Chevron, which also has rights to explore three licenceblocks near the Black Sea, does not have plans to use frackingunder its five-year exploration programme. It says is abiding byall safety regulations.

It said last month it had filed a civil lawsuit againstprotesters in Poland who have prevented it from reaching a sitewhere it plans to explore for shale. It said the action wasfiled on the grounds that protesters were violating its lawfulright of access to the site - one of four shale gas explorationconcessions the company has in Poland.

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