France reaffirms opposition to shale gas exploration


French Environment Minister Philippe Martin reiterated his government’s strong opposition to the exploitation of shale gas, despite a parliamentary report advocating more flexibility towards unconventional gas.

The French government says it will not issue the permits for shale gas exploitation requested by the US company Hess Oil, Martin, the energy and ecology minister, announced on 28 November.

Hess oil brought the the seven permits from the company Toreador, which had secured them in 2010. The oil covered by the permits is located in the Parisian basin. The permits were never clearly cancelled after the government set a law in 2011 prohibiting hydraulic fracturing.

“How was I to validate this change of permit when their initial goal was exclusively shale gas exploration and when the US company that bought them is specialised in shale gas extraction?," Martin said.

"Given the geological strata where the drilling would have taken place, it would have automatically implied hydraulic fracturing, which is forbidden in France,” he said.

The cancellation could cost the French state around €210,000, as Hess Oil claims €30,000 compensation per permit. The state intends to reduce the compensation.

“In any case, it is nothing in comparison with the environmental and societal cost that this exploration would have represented,” the minister said.

Non-negotiable decision

The decision of the minister confirms the categorical opposition of the French government to shale gas exploitation, a position not shared by all.

A French parliamentary expert office, OPECST, presented a report which suggests that France should take a more flexible stance on the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Drafted by two MPs from left and right, respectively Christian Bataille (PS) and Jean-Claude Lenoir (UMP), the report on “alternative techniques to the hydraulic fracturing for the exploration and exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons” singles out the “demonisation of shale gas in France”.

The two MPs call for experimental drilling which would allow testing new techniques derived from hydraulic fracturing. In their opinion, this is justified by the fast progress on extraction techniques since the 2011 legislation.

“Hydraulic fracturing is currently the most frequent technique but is not the only one,” Jean-Claude Lenoir reminded.

“We are not saying that we need to use more hydrocarbons. We are saying that we need to use less hydrocarbons progressively, but that the hydrocarbons that we use should in priority come from our subsoil if those resources exist,” Christian Bataille explained.

The two MPs are not the only ones expressing interest in France's shale gas reserves. On 21 November, the Academy of Sciences had recommended making a “research effort” on shale gas and to lead experiments, without hydraulic fracturing, so that the law prohibiting its use is not breached.

France is thought to hold the largest resources in shale gas on the European continent. In June 2013, the US Energy Information Administration’s assessment was that France potentially had 300 billion cubic metres of technically recoverable unconventional gas, which was a slightly less optimistic assessment than the previous one – 5,100 cubic metres.

The only country to have more recoverable reserves than France is Poland, which exploits shale gas. According to the Polish environment minister, Piotr Wo?niak, the first commercial exploitation in Poland will start in 2014, making Poland the first country to exploit this resource.

Jean-Paul Chanteguet (Socialist Party), president of the committee on sustainable development of the French parliament, was critical of the two MP's report on shale gas, saying “The major part of the work is off topic, as it regards hydraulic fracturing, the prohibition of which was confirmed by the Constitutional Court on 11 October."

"The rapporteurs say that this (illegal) technique is now manageable thanks to important progress made. This conviction turns out to be, as we read the report, an act of faith and has not got the least scientific evidence, be it for water, air, soil pollution of greenhouse emissions and the seismic risk that the hydraulic fracturing can cause”, Chanteguet added.

The Minister of Energy and Environment, Philippe Martin (Socialist), reminded that “the issue of shale gas and their alleged financial benefits is controversial. The competitiveness of our enterprises and the improvement of our citizens’ purchasing power will be done through the energetic transition and the implementation of a new balance in our supplies: less fossil energy, less nuclear energy and more renewables and energy efficiency, I will present the draft law on the energetic transition in spring 2014.”

French MEP François-Michel Lambert (Greens) said that a small number of MPs were still trying to play the shale gas lobbies’ game but that they were losing ground.

“Even GDF-Suez advocates 100% renewable gas by 2050! These MPs would better help the future ant the energetic transition instead of leading rearguard actions”.

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.

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