Eastern Europe could become the next hotbed of shale gas exploration as oil and gas moguls, such as Chevron Corp., chase opportunities in countries that want to establish their energy independence from Russia and rebuild their economies.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the combined gas reserves in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary could equal more than 535-billion cubic metres of gas. This would be enough to restock Romania's consumption for almost 40 years, according to the agency, as Romania's average annual consumption totals about 14-billion cubic metres.
Despite these motivations, the use of the controversial shale gas extraction method – known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking – has already caused serious domestic opposition in Eastern Europe.
While countries such as France and the Netherlands continue to ban the practice, Romania lifted a moratorium on fracking earlier this year. Protests ensued. However, the country is moving ahead in its pursuit of energy independence and has since granted exploration permits to U.S.-based Chevron to explore the country's Black Sea region. In July, Chevron obtained permits to explore several sites in eastern Romania and this means the company has now acquired leases for more than four-million acres in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania for shale gas exploration and evaluation.
But it will be years of drilling and exploration before the full potential is realized, explains Sally Jones, Chevron's external communications adviser for Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.
"We are at the early stages of our exploration activities in Central Europe. This phase of exploratory work will take anywhere between three to five years. Then we will have a clearer idea of whether hydrocarbons are actually present, their potential scale, and whether they can be developed commercially," Ms. Jones says. "It may then be 10-15 years before full commercialization."
Chevron's shale gas exploration will take place in two counties of Romania – Vaslui and Constanta – and there are plans to start drilling at the Vaslui deposits as early as the autumn. The company is currently trying to ease the population's worries over fracking even as photos emerge of Romanian protesters holding signs that read "Go home Chevron," and "We say no to shale."
Promises of substantial economic benefit are making it easier for politicians to brush aside the potential environmental risk and to get the shale gas market up and running. Most notably, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who in the country's 2012 election criticized the previous ruling party for its support of LNG exploration, has since shifted his stand and now enthusiastically backs this move.
"The impact on the economy in terms of direct foreign investment can be significant if these projects actually go ahead," says Alexander Wilk, a research analyst at British-based Petrologica.
But how realistic are dreams that shale gas will be the economic saviour in the former Eastern Bloc? Not very, Mr. Wilk says.
"For a devastated country after the economic crisis, LNG will not be the golden solution, it will not be the easy way out."
So the fervour over shale may be a little premature, as Poland has proven to be a battle for some major oil and gas companies. Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc. and U.S.-based Exxon Mobil Corp. packed up and left the country just a couple of months ago after lacklustre drilling results and more difficult-than-expected geology shattered their initial enthusiasm over Poland's shale reserves.
Chevron, on the other hand, is holding out to see what more exploration brings, explains Ms. Jones, as work continues at the four wells Chevron has already drilled throughout the country. "Central Europe is currently at the very early stages of exploration…[and] this resource could certainly enhance energy security within Europe and also bring enormous economic benefits," she says, adding that, while the shale gas revolution in this region may not reach levels currently seen in the United States, "we are still confident of the opportunities ahead."
The Polish government also remains optimistic and has so far issued more than 100 licences for shale exploration to companies such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips Co. and Poland's PGNiG – the state-controlled oil and natural gas company.
Skilled workers and the fracking technology also are not readily available in this part of the world, explains Bob Kubis, lead global fundamentals analyst at Encana, and this is a major expense for companies starting out.
"Unless you do have a significant play, where you do have quite high initial recoveries, it's still early stages so any marginal well might be abandoned due to economic reasons."
Mr. Kubis acknowledges that the push for energy independence from Moscow in countries such as Romania and Ukraine is powerful, but he says it won't happen quickly, if at all.
But it doesn't necessarily have to be an all-or-nothing situation, he adds. Simply offsetting some of the imports from Russia and setting up relationships with new markets may prove more beneficial.
"Even domestic markets, if they can displace Russian gas, then it will find a place in the market if it's lower-cost supply than Russian gas," Mr. Kubis explains.
"And, as well, if they can export, especially for Poland, if they can target the German market, which is a pretty substantial chunk of the European demand market, then you could see quite a bit of development if that can succeed."