Hollande deals setback to nuclear, shale gas industries

Hollande envrio 600 x 400.jpg

French President François Hollande has vowed to shut down the country’s oldest nuclear power station by 2016, and in a wide-ranging speech on the environment, says his government would reject development of shale gas using a controversial extraction method known as ‘fracking’.

Hollande, who took office in May, announced on Friday (14 September) he would shut the Fessenheim nuclear station in Alsace, near the German border, by the end of 2016, sticking to his election pledge to halt its operations by the end of his mandate in 2017.

The facility, which went into service in 1977, is France's oldest nuclear power plant and has been a frequent focus of safety concerns since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Last week environmental groups called for its early closure after a steam leak at the plant triggered a brief fire alert.

France derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear production, more than any other country, and the issue of its nuclear dependency has become particularly sensitive in the wake of last year's Fukushima disaster in Japan. Hollande repeated his pledge to cut the country's share of nuclear power in the energy mix to 50%.

Hollande's announcement on the early closure has dealt a blow to the nuclear industry, and drawn criticism from unions which are worried about job losses.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Bernard Thibault, head of French energy group EDF's main workers' union, the CGT, called the decision "rushed" and said it had been made before the country had even started a debate on its energy transition.

Fracking ban to be maintained

Hollande, speaking at an environmental conference in Paris, also announced he has rejected several applications to begin extracting natural gas and oil from shale using hydraulic fracking, which uses a high-pressure mixture of sand, water and chemicals to extract petroleum.

The decision was made out of health and environmental concerns, news reports quoted Hollande as saying. His predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy, also banned fracking, a technology that is being widely developed in the United States and is being considered in several European Union countries, including Poland.

Hollande also recommended a 40% cut in European Union carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and a 60% reduction by 2040, calling too for a global accord on climate change by 2015.

"Our next goal is to reach a global climate agreement in 2015. France is fully committed to achieving this," Hollande told an annual environmental conference.

He said he intended to push for more global dialogue on environmental issues during his five-year presidency, saying a lack of progress in meeting climate goals made this urgent.

The EU has set itself a legally binding goal to reduce its emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020. In October 2009, EU leaders endorsed a long-term target of reducing collective developed country emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This is in line with the recommendations of the UN's scientific arm – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – for preventing catastrophic changes to the Earth's climate.

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 16% of the world's largest economy natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years.

Subscribe to our newsletters