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INEOS launches vessels to ship U.S. shale gas, delays UK plans

* UK shale production still planned, but delayed-chairman

* Six more vessels planned by next year

By Chen Aizhu

QIDONG, China July 14 (Reuters) - Swiss chemicals group INEOS launched two 27,000 cubic-metre vessels from a shipyard in eastern China on Tuesday, part of a $1 billion project to transport U.S. ethane to plants in Norway and Scotland.

INEOS said it planned to load the first ethane gas from the United States in October to supply its chemical plants in Norway as it is looks to capitalise on the shale gas boom in North America to fill a gap left by slumping gas production from North Sea fields, company executives said at the launch.

The ships, each over 100 metres long, were launched from the shipyard in Qidong in Jiangsu province.

With another six vessels due for commissioning by around next August, INEOS will operate a fleet able to ship the oil equivalent of 80,000 barrels per day of ethane in total.

INEOS chairman Jim Ratcliffe told Reuters at the launch a difficult regulatory environment in the Britain would mean that its shale production in Europe would be delayed.

In the UK where the group was founded, INEOS remains committed to its earlier pledge to spend $1 billion drilling for shale gas and hopes to start commercial explorations in 2017, Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe previously said he expected the licences to be awarded by the government early in 2015.

"If the government genuinely perceives it (shale gas) as strategically important energy resource, they need to make the planning process more efficient," said Ratcliffe.

British local government officials rejected a fracking project in northwest England last month, dealing a blow to Britain's shale gas sector that is supported by the government.

Britain is in the early stages of developing shale gas resources to lower its dependence on energy imports, but exploration to see whether the resources are commercially viable has been slow in the face of local opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The British Geological Survey estimates Britain could have shale gas reserves of 49.4-134.6 trillion cubic feet, but it is unclear how much of this could be recovered.

The firm has acquired half a million acres of shale acreage in the UK and wants the government to move faster in giving the go-ahead to drill in the face of opposition from environmentalists.

Scotland, where the majority of the acreage is based has imposed a ban on issuing fracking permits. (Reporting by Chen Aizhu, additional reporting by Karolin Schaps in London, writing by Simon Falush, editing by David Evans)