Last week Bulgaria made a decision on shale gas development that may have a profoundly negative effect on the future of its energy supply, investment climate, and economy.
A full, informed, and public debate should have weighed the relative risks, cost and environmental impact of each energy source. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with shale gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," technology, used to exploit the gas in shale formations, has changed the energy supply equation in the US. As a result of this technology, the gas market in US has dramatically changed, with increased domestic supply and lower fuel prices. With their development of shale gas resources, Poland and neighbouring Romania may also soon take greater steps towards achieving energy independence.
Regarding the risks, there is no question that safeguards to protect the environment and public safety must be tough, effective, and long-term. But a sincere concern for stewardship of the natural environment should not stymie exploration. This is especially true in Bulgaria, where certain groups have a vested interest in maintaining dependence on costly imported energy.
Parliament’s approval of an indefinite ban on hydraulic fracturing could unfortunately also deprive the public of even knowing whether Bulgaria has the potential for a commercially viable, long-term domestic energy supply. Surely, the development of a new energy source that could potentially bring lower gas prices, jobs, revenue to the national and municipal governments, and foreign investment is worth studying.
Exploration for shale resources requires many initial steps that do not include hydraulic fracturing. The timetable to begin actual development and exploitation of the gas provides sufficient time in advance for the public discussion and regulatory development that Bulgaria needs. Regrettably, the recent decision by Parliament deprives Bulgaria of the opportunity not only to build the strong oversight needed to manage shale gas development, but also of knowing whether you can achieve greater energy independence. The Bulgarian leadership owes the public a thorough investigation of this potential resource.
A young Bulgarian activist told me recently that, "We may be sitting on a gold mine and calling ourselves poor." The absence of a broad debate, involving scientists, government officials, environmentalists and consumers, has resulted in a vacuum of information about the pros and cons needed to decide on whether that potential gold can be mined.
James Warlick is the US ambassador to Bulgaria. This op-ed first appeared on the website of the US embassy in Sofia on January 27.