By Ioana Patran
BUCHAREST, May 23 (Reuters) - Romania will soon launch tenders to expand shale gas exploration after Chevron took the lead this month as the government seeks to reduce dependence on costly imports, the energy minister said on Thursday.
"The mineral resources agency will launch tenders for shale exploration in the near term. New perimeters are set to be tendered soonish, but it is up to them (to set) the exact timing," Minister Constantin Nita said.
"It's normal that we would like to see more and more investors and companies joining the search for energy resources," he added.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that Romania and its neighbours Bulgaria and Hungary could between them have 538 billioncubic metres of gas, which would be enough to cover Romania's consumption for almost 40 years.
Earlier this month U.S. oil major Chevron said it planned to start exploration for shale gas in Romania.
It will conduct a 2D geophysical study near the Black Sea and drill exploratory wells further north in Vaslui county.
Shale gas faces local opposition due to environmental concerns around hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into underground rock formations to push out the gas. Thousands protested across Romania last month, asking the government to ban the drilling.
Romania's leftist government initially opposed shale gas when it took power in 2012 but has since became a supporter in view of the potential economic benefits from any major discovery.
Nita told an energy seminar earlier on Thursday that, depending on shalegas exploration findings, "Romania will decide whether or not to exploit them."
But he added his government "is seeking to find ways to reassess the energy mix in Romania".
Romania is not under so much pressure as its neighbours to find more gas, because it already has considerable conventional gas reserves and imports only about a quarter of the gas it uses.