BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania will produce more gas than it and smaller eastern neighbor Moldova consume by 2020, and the country's gas grid operator will need to invest in its infrastructure to handle additional resources, the energy minister said on Wednesday.
Romania is the third-most energy-independent state in the European Union, with a mix including gas, coal, hydro, nuclear and renewable energy, and unlike many of its emerging European peers it imports only a fifth of its gas needs from Russia.
"Our analyses show that by 2020 we will have more gas than Romania and Moldova consume overall, assuming consumption will not change from current levels," Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu told the Reuters Eastern Europe Investment Summit.
"How much more remains to be seen. There will be a need to invest in infrastructure."
Nicolescu said Romania's main energy priority is to encourage production from its own resources, be it offshore or onshore, including encouraging the redevelopment of mature fields.
"For the region it would be important to try and encourage the production of indigenous energy resources," he said. "For us this is the main priority at the moment."
"We mean offering new exploration licenses at tenders, stimulating partnerships between local companies and foreign ones to stimulate production on mature fields and partnerships between oil licence owners and large companies that could explore offshore at large depths."
Romania's top oil and gas group Petrom and U.S. major ExxonMobil have discovered 1.5-3 trillion cubic feet (42-84 billion cubic meters (bcm)) of gas reserves in the Black Sea, which could become commercially viable in 2019.
Romania plans to tender 36 new onshore and offshore areas for exploration next year.
Nicolescu also said U.S. firm Stratum Energy has started delivering gas to the national system a few days ago, becoming the country's third gas producer after state-owned Romgaz and Petrom, majority-controlled by Austria's OMV.
Stratum Energy was developing gas condensate in a field in the southeastern country of Bacau and was delivering 0.3 million cubic meters per gas a day, Nicolescu said.
Romania would be able to withstand a worst-case scenario of Russia shutting off supplies to Europe this winter, he added.
"Obviously we do not want Europe to go through this. We believe it isn't in anyone’s interest, we hope energy will not be used by anyone as a political weapon, but we are ready."
Nicolescu said Romania would store about 2.6 billion cubic meters in underground facilities for winter, 1 billion cubic meters more than legally mandated by energy regulator ANRE. The country produces about 11 billion cubic meters a year and consumes roughly 12.5 billion.
During an official visit to the United States in late September, Nicolescu met representatives of several energy firms including ConocoPhillips, Quintana, Noble Energy, Transatlantic Petroleum, Aspect Holdings, Stratum Energy, Hupecol.
"These are companies that could either expand their operations in Romania or that could start to invest in Romania."
Nicolescu also said a pipeline inaugurated in August that should deliver Romanian gas to impoverished non-EU member Moldova wasn't yet delivering supplies due to commercial problems.
"At least two Romanian companies have made offers to the Moldovan company, for quantities sold at prices that are from what we know around 20 percent lower than Gazprom prices."
"These are commercial talks and when these technical and commercial problems are solved, gas deliveries can happen."
Initially, the pipeline should carry about 3 percent of Moldova's annual needs but it has the potential to fully cover its consumption provided Romania invests more in stations to boost pressure and Moldova extends the pipeline another 104 km to the capital Chisinau.
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Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Hugh Lawson