The French government has backed a draft bill that would ban shale gas drilling in the country, citing fears that the extraction method is a risk to water quality. However, for other countries like Poland, shale gas has become a national priority to win independence from Russian imports. EURACTIV France reports.
MPs from the ruling centre-right UMP party tabled the bill in the National Assembly using an accelerated procedure. As a result, it will only be examined in a single reading in the Assembly and the Senate.
If adopted, the text would suspend drilling permits granted in March 2010 to Total, GDF Suez, and Schuepbach Energy by former Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.
A shale gas drilling ban is also supported by the opposition Socialist Party, which presented its own alternative text with the same aim.
In March, the French government had prolonged a moratorium on shale gas drilling until June.
This had followed protests opposing the drilling method, notably in the village of Villeneuve-de-Berg in southern France, with over 20,000 people voicing their opposition chanting "No gazaran!" Shale gas drilling near the town had been planned for the end of 2011.
Scientists relieved, oil business fears red tape
After the announcement of the suspension of drilling, researchers at the hydro-science centre at the University of Montpellier said they were reassured. In the event of shale gas drilling, Montpellier's region "and all the water reserves close to the drilling area would have been seriously threatened," said researcher Françoise Elbaz.
"There is always a technological risk. In going back up, the drill can release toxic gases such as the radioelements naturally contained in the rocks," she said. "And the authorities would have to cut off the water supply."
No such drilling has yet taken place in France, but researchers cite the example of the city of Pittsburgh in the United States. Elbaz says that following the use of chemicals to fracture the rock and ensure permeability, the waters of the city have reached a salinity level inappropriate for consumption.
During a presentation of his company's annual results last February, the director-general of Total, Christophe Margerie, said he was "annoyed by the noise" surrounding shale gas. He expressed frustration with excessive concern about the safety of drilling, saying "it's good to talk about the problems this can pose – if one day there are some – but today, there are none".
Margerie also raised fears that red tape could hinder production. "[If] we need to ask the authorisation to one day ask for authorisation, we're going to start falling into useless paperwork," he said.
EU to assess shale gas potential in Europe
If the law is passed, the French debate on shale gas should be closed, but the discussion continues at the European level.
Last February, European leaders agreed that "Europe's potential for sustainable extraction and use of conventional and unconventional (e.g. shale gas, oil shale) fossil fuel resources should be assessed".
A report by the consultancy firm McKinsey – commissioned by major gas giants Gazprom, Centrica and others – claimed that shale gas could meet the continent's energy needs for 30 years.
Cuadrilla Resources, a British energy company, has begun exploratory drilling near Blackpool, Lancashire. Drilling of shale gas is already taking place near Gdansk, Poland.
For certain European countries, Poland in the lead, the drilling of shale gas is seen as an alternative to Russian gas, which would allow for greater energy independence.
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.
However, by pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure via a technique known as hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', energy companies believe they have found a part of the answer to Europe's energy security problems.
The method remains intensely controversial because of its possible environmental risks, including poisoning groundwater and higher greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas.
To proponents, shale gas represents a hitherto untapped and welcome alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuels. 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 over 10% of US natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years. BP's former chief executive Tony Hayward has described shale gas as a "game changer".
- French National Assembly:Draft bill banning shale gas drilling
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