France's 'green vote' kills shale gas - and targets nuclear power as well

July 21, 2011 | 00:00

France's 'green vote' kills shale gas - and targets nuclear power as well

France became the first country in Europe to explicitly outlaw hydraulic fracturing. The move is symptomatic of a wider change in French public opinion, which is increasingly critical of technologies such as genetically manipulated organisms (GMO's), nanotechnology, and even nuclear power. The 'green vote' has become a firm reality in France, reports our correspondent Yves Saint de Jacob from Paris. With Senatorial elections this year and Presidential and General Elections next year, the energy sector will feel the impact.

‘I am shocked by this debate! France has an irrational attitude, which no longer fits in with the tradition of reasoned thinking in the country of Descartes.’ Professor Jean-Marie Chevalier, one of France’s top energy economists, former Director of the Centre de Géopolitique de l’Energie et des Matières Premières, Senior Associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), author of numerous energy books, reacts with disbelief at the decision of the French Parliament to outlaw hydraulic fracturing and thus the exploration and exploitation of unconventional gas.

‘We should have started by doing what the Poles did and asked the right questions’, says Chevalier. ‘Is there any shale gas? How much is there? What is the cost? How can we produce it? What are the rules to be adopted so that the consequences for the environment are limited? And once we have the replies, we take a decision. But what do we see? Completely anti-Cartesian and irrational reactions.’

France has practically no “conventional” domestic oil or gas reserves. About sixty or so small oil and gas deposits in the Paris region and in Aquitaine, near Bordeaux, account for only one to two per cent of France’s consumption of hydrocarbons. However, the country does appear to have large “unconventional” gas reserves. According to a parliamentary report, shale gas reserves in France are among the largest in Europe, along with Poland’s. If only 10% were extracted, it would provide for more than 10 years of French gas consumption, the report says. Over the long term, shale gas would significantly cut down the €45 billion bill that France pays every year for imported hydrocarbons. ‘If we could have a low cost national gas, it would do wonders for the French economy and for our options for negotiations with the Russians or the Algerians’, says an animated Professor Chevalier. ‘And yet, we only see the possible threats and not the opportunities.’

Ultra-sensitive

So why did the government and the Parliament take this drastic measure? The answer, in the final analysis, is: as a result of public opposition. The first protests against unconventional gas exploration broke out at the end of 2010, at the local level, in the regions where exploration work had been started by oil companies that had obtained permits from the French authorities. They included oil giant Total and about twenty or so small companies, in particular foreign ones, such as Toréador Resources and Shuepbach Energy from the US and European Gas Limited, an Australian company specialising in coalbed methane.

In subsequent months, everything conspired to expand the protest movements. The American film Gasland, with its images of flames coming out of the tap, came out. There was an unprecedented spring drought that made farmers ultra-sensitive about water management. There was the listing of the Causses-Cévennes region, said to be very rich in rock hydrocarbons, as a UNESCO world heritage site. And there is the political, pre-electoral climate that leads the Left to look for any opportunities to seek confrontation with the government.

As a result, the right wing majority in parliament, facing the threat of losing control of the Senate in the upcoming elections in September, felt necessitated to take the initiative to come up with a draft law. After many amendments, the draft ended up as an extremely restrictive final text. It stipulates that ‘the

'France has an irrational attitude, which no longer fits in with the tradition of reasoned thinking in the country of Descartes'
exploration and exploitation of liquid or gaseous hydrocarbon mines by drilling followed by hydraulic fracturing of the rock is banned on the national territory’. Even explorations of a scientific nature, which senators had at one time tried to authorise, are severely restricted. They have to be approved by government authorities, carried out ‘under public supervision’ and are subject to an annual parliamentary assessment. Companies that have already obtained permits will have to explain their exploration techniques and, if they engage in hydraulic fracturing, the permits will be rescinded.

Ray of hope

Some observers believe that the law does contain some loopholes. They point out that it does not ban the exploitation of a product (i.e. rock hydrocarbons) but bans a technique (i.e. hydraulic fracturing) without precisely defining it. Other techniques are being studied, such as pneumatic fracturing, which instead of water uses compressed air or systems that fracture rocks by subjecting them to electric shocks. However, such techniques are still under development and it remains to be seen whether they will be economically viable in the foreseeable future. Hydraulic fracturing has been around for 50 years (it is frequently used, deep into the earth, for geothermal energy production) but it has only been profitable for five or six years.

Another ambiguity is that the permits that have already been granted are not automatically rescinded. That is what the left wing opposition demanded but the government was afraid of heavy damage claims. The companies concerned will have to declare what technique they use. If it is hydraulic fracturing, the permit will be rescinded. But if they stay vague in their formulation, they will be able to keep their permit and wait for better days.

The third ray of hope for the proponents of shale gas is that under the law a ‘national orientation, monitoring and evaluation committee’ will be set up. This will have no decision-making power, but it will bring everyone together, including the industry. Within this platform, debate will continue and it could play a role after the elections.

In any case, that is the hope of the companies, who seem to be playing for time and taking a low profile. Contacted by EER, two of them refused to comment, but referred to a very moderate press release from

The adoption of the precautionary principle shows that the environmental debate in France is much wider than the shale gas issue
UFIP, the French union of oil industries. This says that UFIP regrets the ‘accelerated’ adoption of ‘regrettable’ legislation, but ‘will actively take part in the work of the committee’. Craig McKenzie, President and CEO of Toreador, announced that for now his company ‘will not conduct hydraulic fracturing operations within any of (its) permit areas’. ‘We will make full disclosures and representations to the French regulatory authorities as may be required,’ he added, apparently convinced that the debate is not closed.

The attitude of the French government is not entirely clear. One senator says that he heard an advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy say that ‘you mustn’t look at things in the short term’. Others point out that Sarkozy publicly assured Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, on a visit to Paris, that he did not want ‘to create difficulties’ for Poland, which is known to be the most active country in the EU in shale gas exploitation.

Precautionary principle

Various conspiracy theories circulate in France as to who the “real” lobbies are behind the shale gas decision. In particular the nuclear lobby and the (conventional) gas lobby are mentioned, but even if they were involved, which is not very likely, there is no reason to believe that they had a decisive voice in the matter. The real “culprit” rather seems to be the changed mood among the French public in environmental matters in recent years. In 2005, under a strongly-expressed guidance by then President Jacques Chirac, what in France is called the “precautionary principle” (“principle of precaution”) has been enshrined in the French Constitution, along with a “Charter of the Environment”. The move was coordinated by a young MP, whom many people at the time already considered a political rising star: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. She is now a respected “ministre de l’Ecologie” in Sarkozy’s cabinet, with enlarged powers that give her some economic leverage.

A campaign against shale gas production, Marseille, France (Photo: marcovdz/EUobserver)
With slightly ambivalent wording, the constitutional principle of precaution states that provisional measures must be taken to prevent “damage” to the environment from economic activities, even if it is not certain that such damage will occcur. Some have celebrated the adoption of the precautionary principle on ethical-environmental grounds. Others fear it will block economic and scientific progress.

The adoption of the precautionary principle shows that the environmental debate in France is much wider than the shale gas issue. Germany is known of course for its strong “green” movement, but it appears that France is not far behind. Even nuclear power, which has long been widely considered the mainstay of French energy supply, is under attack. Green militants have for decades fought for a “Sortir du nucléaire” (“Nuclear phase-out). Their battle cry has now been generally embraced by the Left, even by the Communist party, which once was a strong supporter of nuclear power. The disagreements among the Left are only about the speed of the phasing out (20, 30, 40 years?) and the desired share of nuclear power in the energy mix (between 0 and 50%).

For Nicolas Sarkozy and the Right majority, nuclear energy is still essential for a smooth production of electricity and for national independence. The Front National, which is totally against the exploitation of shale gas, tends to be mildly pro-nuclear. The FN’s leader Marine Le Pen, who will take part in the Presidential elections next year, has said that a nuclear phase-out is ‘an objective’, but that it is not possible before huge investments and research in alternative energy sources. Incidentally, the FN appears to be quite hostile to “the oil lobby” and suspects it of supporting the anti-nuke movement.

It is by no means certain how the nuclear issue will play out in the coming years. The stress tests and safety measures which were decided on at national and European levels after the Fukushima accident, are viewed in totally different lights by the two camps. According to the opponents of nuclear power, they should be led by “independent” experts, including critics, and their objective should basically be to fix a phase-out schedule, with the oldest plants to be shut down first. For the defenders of nuclear energy, they should be the business of nuclear experts, working in a purely technical manner, and they should establish what measures must be taken to improve the safety of existing plants and pave the way for new ones.

Green light

A concrete illustration of these conflicting views is the sensitive issue of the Fessenheim plant, located in the Alsace region, within a mile from the German border and 30 miles from the Swiss border. The regional council of Franche-Comté has called for the closure of this plant – an unprecedented move from a French region.

While the “green” demonstrations against the plant are becoming louder and louder, the nuclear safety authority ASN (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire), has given a temporary green light to the plant, stipulating

The Front National, which is totally against the exploitation of shale gas, tends to be mildly pro-nuclear

that it can go on for another 10 years if some extra safety measures are taken. Such a “temporary” permit is normal in France, as inspections are carried out every ten years at each reactor. This inspection did not, however, include the additional “Fukushima” stress test, which can impose new demands that will be impossible to meet for an old reactor.

The final decision about the future of the plant will now be taken by the national government, but not before November. What is significant is that Kosciusko-Morizet, the Environment Minister, was very quick to stress that it would be a ‘misinterpretation to say that the green light from the ASN means that the government has decided to extend the operations for 10 years’.

Perhaps the future of the French energy sector may best be gauged by the fact that last week, on 11 July, the government began accepting bids for a 10 billion-euro program to build five offshore wind farms. The aim of the government is to have 1200 wind turbines installed by 2020, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts. According to a statement from Kosciusko-Morizet, ‘the aim is to build a French industry sector and become a leader in offshore wind and marine renewable energies.’

Meriem Sidhoum Delahaye contributed to this story.

 

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