Protestors in January demanding a halt to shale gas exploration led to the Parliament moratorium.
Bulgaria's Parliament will form a committee that would amend the wording of a moratorium that effectively banned all oil and gas exploration in the country, but also would investigate whether it was safe to allow shale gas prospecting, Economy Minister Delyan Dobrev said on April 2.
In January, following a series of protest rallies, Parliament passed a moratorium on shale gas exploration that also banned any oil and gas drilling at pressures above 20 atmospheres. This drew immediate criticism from the oil and gas industry because it effectively banned any drilling at depths below 200m.
Some critics went as far as to say that in their rush to score easy popularity points with a public opinion concerned with the use of hydro-fracturing (fracking) technology, the MPs failed to take into consideration the full consequences of the ban.
Among such consequences is the fact that state-owned gas companies Bulgargaz cannot pump any gas into the Chiren gas field, which is used by the country as its main gas storage facility, Dobrev told Bulgarian National Television.
Parliament is expected to constitute the ad hoc committee by the end of the week, he said. The committee's task will be to craft a more "precise" wording of the ban, which would allow companies to resume conventional gas exploration and restocking the reserves in the Chiren gas depository.
"The problem is that there was no debate. The public was worried that we were under pressure having granted Chevron an exploration licence," Dobrev said.
Just days before MPs voted the moratorium, the Cabinet decided to amend an exploration licence given to the US company, specifically banning the use of fracking technologies.
"In the confusion, tension and fears escalated. Now that we have the moratorium in place, we have the time and space to analyse whether [shale gas prospecting] is dangerous or not," Dobrev said.
"If it is dangerous, the moratorium is in place, or we could pass a law [to ban future prospecting]. But if there are ways to minimise the risk for environment and there is no danger, they why not change the legislation to guarantee that all the risk can be controlled - there are institutions that will ensure that best practices are being observed - and explore whether Bulgaria has any shale gas reserves," he said.
According to Economy Ministry estimates, these reserves could range between 300 billion and one trillion cubic metres, enough to satisfy domestic demand (now at about four billion cubic metres a year) for decades.
It was not immediately clear how large the parliamentary committee would be or whether it would be drawn to reflect the proportional distribution of political parties in Parliament, but Dobrev said he thought all parties should be represented.
Dobrev said that the committee would have to conduct a thorough investigation of the issue, hearing all stakeholders, including environmental groups and oil industry executives, as well as research best industry practices.
It would then recommend to either ban shale gas exploration, maintain the moratorium in place or suggest to prepare legislative changes to contain any risks related to shale gas exploration, he said.
Chevron had not been given an extraction licence, only a prospecting one, Dobrev said. According to the company's prospecting timetable, the drilling of exploratory wells was scheduled to start no earlier than 2014, he said, which was enough time to investigate the issue without a moratorium.