BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU politicians rejected a ban on shale gas, while calling for a robust regulatory regime to address environmental and other concerns, in a series of votes on Wednesday in the European Parliament.
A shale gas revolution has swept the United States, lowering gas prices and helping to displace more polluting coal.
Europe is looking on with interest, if not envy, as the United States moves towards energy independence and gets an economic boost from cheap fuel.
But the prospect of extensive shale gas development in Europe is complicated by land ownership rules, higher population density and environmental concerns about the fracking process used to extract natural gas from shale.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water containing chemicals into shale rock formations at high pressure and critics say it risks contaminating aquifers as well as potentially causing earth tremors.
Although Wednesday's votes rejected a call for a ban on new fracking activity, saying European Union member states had the right to explore their reserves, they also took a cautious line.
Votes on two separate reports struck out sentences pushing for swift shale gas development.
The rejected lines included one that shale gas could "play a critical role" in the transition to low-carbon power generation and another on supporting "a high level of sustainable shale gas production".
The European Commission is expected next year to deliver a framework on managing the risks and addressing shortcomings in relevant EU regulation.
"Studies carried out indicate that there are a number of uncertainties or gaps in current EU legislation," Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement.
"Addressing health and environmental risks will be of paramount importance for the industry to gain broad public acceptance."
Wednesday's parliamentary votes are not binding, but are a political signal to Commission law-drafters.
Shale gas supporters welcomed them, while environmentalists and Green politicians praised the mood of caution, but had wanted a ban.
"This implies that member states should think twice before allowing any projects of this controversial technology to go ahead," Carl Schlyter, Swedish Green member of the European Parliament, said in a statement.
Shale Gas Europe, a new body backed by oil and gas firms, including Chevron, Statoil and Royal Dutch Shell, said the parliament had called for shale gas exploration and ensuring it was done sustainably.
"Shale Gas Europe fully supports those goals and will keep engaging with citizens and decision-makers by listening to and addressing concerns relating to shale gas," spokeswoman Monica Cristina said.
(Reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by Anthony Barker)