Activists fear U-turn on French fracking ban
Environmentalists around the world welcomed France's 2001 ban on hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting gas and oil from shale rock underground more commonly known as fracking. But the potential of huge oil and gas reserves has led some in France to question the ban. Even within the Socialist government there is support for rethinking the law, a fact that alarms anti-fracking campaigners.
An oil company in the Paris area has been building drilling platforms, perhaps in anticipation of this change, which has residents of affected areas worried about the future.
"The first people to be affected by drilling will be farmers," explains Christophe Charpentier, a farmer near the town of Jouarre, about an hour's drive east of Paris.
Dependent on water, he says, farmers will suffer by deep drilling that could affect the water table.
Charpentier recently allowed local activists to gather on one of his fields, across the road from a site where Hess Oil France is building a platform.
He helped hang a big sign on stacked hay bales that reads "No to shale oil".
Geologist believe that deep under the ground is a substantial reserve of oil in shale, porous stone that needs to be or fractured or ‘"stimulated" in order to release it. The process involves drilling a well into the shale and fracking it - pumping liquid or other elements to crack the rock and release the oil.
While oil companies insist the technique is safe, critics say there is no guarantee that the fracking fluid will not contaminate the ground water and no way to ensure that methane and other gases are not released into the air.
Hydraulic fracturing is banned in France but Charpentier suspects Hess Oil is expecting the rules to change. He does not believe that the platform being built across the road from his field, one of three in the region, is for the drilling of a conventional well.
"If that were the case, they’d have been here 25 or 30 years ago," he says. "We want to show that we are not being fooled."
One of the two dozen protesters who braved the cold to stand along the road with signs is Isabelle Lévy, a petite woman with grey hair and glasses. She lives in Jouarre, and is a founding member of a local anti-fracking group.
The protest movement, she says, is to show the company they are being watched.
"We're here to say: we know. You have to know we are here, we know that you cannot avoid fracking, so don’t tell us you will not do it," she says.
Like Charpentier, she is sceptical about the platform. She says there are no pockets of oil around Jouarre, so the oil that exists must be extracted by fracking or another technique.
Hess Oil France does not respond to questions on the record, but in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website it says it is obeying the law: hydraulic fracturing is illegal in France, so Hess will not use the technique when it is looking for oil in the area.
Explaining what is happening in Jouarre, the website says the platform could hold a drill for a conventional well but that has not yet been planned.
Lévy says France's anti-fracking law bans the technique without defining it, which leads her and others to conclude that companies are expecting to use other methods that will have the same result.
"It will be called 'stimulation'," Lévy predicts. "The name is different, so the ban on fracking will remain, but not on stimulation."
Her suspicions are not completely unfounded. Christian Bataille, a member of parliament with the ruling Socialist Party, is working on a feasibility study on the exploitation of what he calls France's non-conventional hydrocarbons, which includes shale oil and gas.
"People I have met are convinced that we have a very large reserve of shale gas in France, corresponding no doubt to several hundreds of years' of consumption," he says in his office at the National Assembly in Paris. "France cannot ignore this kind of resource right under its feet."
The study, which he will conduct with a senator from the opposition UMP party, Jean-Claude Lenoir, will take him to the United States, where fracking is used extensively, along with other methods. Bataille already believes France should consider allowing these alternatives, which include electrical stimulation, a still-experimental technique, and fracking using propane, which is starting to be used in the US.
He says the law banning hydraulic fracturing in France was passed without due consideration, presented at the start of an election campaign and supported by MPs anxious to get votes.
"The law was passed to reassure voters, essentially from the Paris region," he says. "It was a political decision, not a technological or economic one. I believe that when you introduce political interests in this kind of issue, you have results that are not satisfactory."
Bataille admits that his is not the dominant position in France, even within his own Socialist Party.
Industrial Renewal minister Arnaud Montebourg has said he would like France to drill its shale oil and gas reserves, while Environment Minister Delphine Batho has said companies should not even be allowed to do exploratory drilling on French territory.
Bataille attributes the differences to a cultural divide within France, between those comfortable with industry and those who do not want to touch nature.
"I come from a mining region, where people accept the exploitation of underground resources," he says. "In other, rural, areas people are very closed to industry. They are hostile to any change in the natural surroundings."
Farmer Christophe Charpentier illustrates this difference. He is against drilling in the mostly agricultural area around Jouarre.
"We are not interested in bringing factories to the countryside," he says, and other farmers from the area, who have arrived in their tractors, agree.
"We make regional products here, we have AOC cheeses," he says, referring to the controlled origin label given to many French products. "I don’t see what we have to gain with having oil drilling here."