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BUCHAREST, May 9 (Reuters) - U.S. oil major Chevron said on Thursday it plans to start exploration for shale gas in Romania, where the government has sounded increasingly amenable to allowing mining by fracking.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates Romania and neighbouring Bulgaria and Hungary could have 538 billion cubic metres of shale gas between them, slightly more than Europe's annual consumption and enough to cover Romania's for almost 40 years.
Chevron will conduct a 2D geophysical study near the Black Sea and plans to drill exploratory shale wells further north in Vaslui county, spokeswoman Sally Jones said. The company did not give a specific date for starting work.
"The exploration phase has a multi-year timeframe. The results of the exploration stage will determine, in cooperation with the Romanian government, the commencement of any potential exploitation activities," Jones said in a statement.
Chevron has rights to explore for shale in three blocks of 670,000 acres (270,000 hectares) near the Black Sea, and has also bought the concession in Vaslui for an undisclosed amount.
The extraction of shale gas requires hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that involves injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations. Experts say that if it is done according to best practice it is environmentally safe, but the technology still provokes public concern.
Initially opposed to shale gas, the leftist coalition government of Victor Ponta has shifted its stance since gaining power in 2012 and now supports exploration, in pursuit for energy independence for Romania.
It has stopped short of approving exploitation of shale wells and thousands protested against shale gas exploration across Romania last month, asking the government to ban drilling due to environment concerns.
"To reach exploitation we need to see if we have this resource and where we have it," Environment Minister Rovana Plumb said last week.
"From the point of view of the environment ministry there is no environmental risk in terms of exploration as the hydraulic fracturing technology is not being used."
Romania is already the least dependent on Russian gas among its central and eastern European neighbours due to its conventional reserves and imports only about a quarter if what it uses.