* Protests continue despite Chevron halt to exploration work
* Opposition to gold mine plan by Canada's Gabriel Resources
* Leftist government's plans have sparked weeks of rallies
By Luiza Ilie
PUNGESTI, Romania, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Thousands of Romaniansprotested on Saturday against plans by U.S. energy group Chevron to explore for shale gas in a poor eastern region and aCanadian company's project to set up Europe's biggest open castgold mine in a Carpathian town.
Plans by the leftist government of Prime Minister VictorPonta to approve the tapping of natural resources in theEuropean Union's second-poorest state have triggered nationwideprotests since the start of September, throwing together localcommunities, environmentalists, civic rights groups and theclergy.
While the two projects are separate and in different stagesof development, protesters have criticised a lack oftransparency in approving both. They demand stronger safeguardsto protect Romania's environment and national heritage.
On Thursday, Chevron suspended work on what was to be itsfirst exploration well in the small town of Pungesti in Vasluicounty, 340 km (210 miles) northeast of the capital Bucharest,after locals blocked access to the site.
But the people of Pungesti, most of whom live offsubsistence farming in one of Europe's poorest regions, havecontinued protesting, asking officials to revoke drilling plans.
On Saturday, more than 800 locals, priests and activistsgathered in front of the empty lot where Chevron plans toinstall the well. Hundreds rallied in other cities.
In punishing windy weather, they waved "Stop Chevron"banners and knelt to the ground while a priest led them inprayer. A group of horse riders clad in national costumes thendestroyed a cardboard model of an oil well.
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 say it can pollute water supplies and trigger smallearthquakes. Advocates say it has a strong safety record andpoint to countries like the United States, where extensivefracking has driven down prices.
"I am against shale gas exploitation because of thechemicals used in fracking," said Vasile Ciobanu, 25, who hasreturned to Pungesti after working abroad for three years andnow lives a few hundred metres away from the proposed well site.
"I don't think the company and Romanian officials arethinking about what could happen to people who live here."
Chevron declined to comment. Earlier this year, the companywon all necessary approvals to drill exploratory wells inVaslui, while it also has rights to explore three blocks nearthe Black Sea. The exploration phase would last for about fiveyears.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates thatRomania could potentially recover 51 trillion cubic feet ofshale gas, which would cover domestic demand for more than acentury and help push prices lower.
In the central Romanian town of Campeni, around 2,000 peopleprotested against Canada's Gabriel Resources plans touse cyanide to mine 314 tonnes of gold and 1,500 tonnes ofsilver in the small town of Rosia Montana.
The state also holds a minority stake in the mine. Thegovernment approved a bill to speed up the project, which hasbeen waiting for approval for 14 years. In Rosia Montana, manyargue the mine is the only solution to create jobs.
But one of the bill's provisions grants the mine "nationalinterest" status, which would make it easier for the company toforce the few locals who oppose the plan to quit their land, inreturn for compensation. Critics say this is unconstitutional.The bill is now following a tortuous path through parliament,and it is unclear when a vote will take place.
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