France explores 'clean' shale gas extraction technique
France is looking into a new technique of shale gas extraction with non-flammable propane, which has yet to be proven safe and efficient.
Even though the exploitation of shale gas remains banned in France, the industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, has openly stated he is in favour of it.
Early February, a French parliamentary office assessing scientific and technological choices heard Jean-Claude Lenoir, MP and co-author of a report on alternative techniques to hydraulic fracturing - or 'fracking' -, the main extraction technique for shale gas.
In his May 2012 investiture speech, French President François Hollande clearly ruled out fracking in France. “In the current state of our knowledge no one can say that the exploitation of gas and oil shale by hydraulic fracturing, only known technique today, is free from serious risks for health and the environment,” he then declared.
The statement announced the end of fracking in France, which until then had been tested in two experimental wells.
Today, a new experimental technique of extraction by non-flammable propane, heptafluoropropane, a refined hydrocarbon, is gaining recognition.
Injecting gas underground to exploit hydrocarbons is not new: oil groups have been injecting CO2 into oil or gas wells for a long time. As it reaches the underground where temperatures are higher, the gas progressively dilates, making it possible to put pressure on the hydrocarbons and extract them more easily.
In the case of unconventional gas, heptafluoropropane could make it possible to crack the bedrock where coal and shale oil and gas are trapped.
MP: 'We found a clean technology'
During the discussion in the parliamentary office meeting, MPs expressed their “interest in this new technology," said Jean-Claude Lenoir, the French MP in charge of the dossier. "All questions have been raised by the speakers who are convinced of the necessity to reopen the file,” Lenoir assured.
Lenoir has worked for the French electric company EDF and is among the strongest advocates for these new techniques. Explaining the benefits of heptafluoropropane, he said: “Heptafluoropropane is not flammable, it is injected underground and then fully recovered, making it harmless for the environment. And no water is used,” the MP says.
Unlike hydraulic fracturing, which requires large amounts of water and chemicals, here gas is self-sufficient.
“The industry minister requested additional information on the fluoropropane technique. We found a clean technology, conditions are now met for an experiment,” Lenoir added.
A devastating gas for the ozone and climate
However, fluoropropane is far from being a miracle gas. For now, it is banned in France just like any gas with a strong impact on the ozone layer, in accordance with the Montreal Convention.
Fluoropropane is also 320 times more harmful than CO2 for the greenhouse effect and its production also emits greenhouse gases. The chemical company Solvay that manufactures it for medical purposes knows the problem and has worked on the subject for a long time.
For some environmentalists, the cure to fracking would therefore be worse than the disease. For Emmannuelle Cosse, leader of the Green Party in France, reopening of the shale gas issue would be a "casus belli".
In any case, drills are still a long way off. Representatives of EcorpStim, a US company producing the non-flammable propane, are expected in France soon to defend the project. Solvay is also trying to convince the government.
From a legal point of view, several pieces are missing to the shale gas puzzle, starting with the establishment of a national monitoring committee as required by French law since 2011. This can only be done through an order that depends both on the industry minister and the environment ministry, which is opposed to it.
Then a clearance for experimentation should be granted. There is little chance that the case moves rapidly, especially since local and European elections are coming up.
Public opinion is also overwhelmingly opposed to shale gas, just as are the Greens and the Socialists.
However, the employer's association MEDEF, as well as right-wing and centrist parties are all seduced by access to cheaper energy. Jean-Louis Schilansky, who leads the union of oil producers, UFIP, has advocated the use of unconventional carbons earlier this month.
Schilansky reminded that the European refining industry was "squeezed" between US competitors, which benefit from cheap shale gas, and plants in the Middle-East, which are closer to high-growth Asian markets.
To avoid the stigma associated with fracking, the pro-shale gas movement actually wants to stop using the term ‘shale gas’ altogether: “It is technically incorrect, and it is better not to use it. After all, it is conventional natural gas that everyone uses to cook," says Jean-Claude Lenoir.
Shale gas is an 'unconventional' fossil fuel that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. Until recently, no method of safely transporting it to the surface existed.
It is mined via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, the process of breaking apart layers of shale by horizontally pumping liquids and a number of chemical additives under high pressure thereby releasing trapped gas reserves.
To proponents, shale gas represents an untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. To detractors it is a hazardous and highly-polluting fossil fuel.
At the moment the continent depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in recent years.
In the US, shale gas already accounts for 16% of the world's largest economy natural gas production, although analysts disagree about its long term potential.