Environmental groups in France are calling for a massive demonstration, as they expect a court to restore a license to Total that was awarded in 2010 but repealed the following year after the introduction of a ban on hydraulic fracturing. The Montélimar permit covers 4,327 km2 covering five departments: Ardèche, Drôme, Gard, Hérault and Vaucluse.
The administrative court of Cergy-Pontoise will decide later this month whether the cancellation of the licence was legal. But even it decides it was not legal, the French company will face a challenge. The Montélimar permit was granted in March 2010 for for a period of five years, so it expired almost 10 months ago.
Whether the permit is still valid or not, the news from the court has sparked an outcry.
Touche pas à mon schiste (which translates as "Don't touch my shale"), a local advocacy group member of the anti-fracking "Stop gaz de schiste" national coalition, is taking the public prosecutor's conclusions for granted, pre-empting how the court decision that will come by the end of month will play out. "We must have a strong and common reaction to the likely reallocation of the permit," the group said in a statement. Local organisations are already planning a "massive citizen demonstration." They could hold a meeting as soon as January 14 to organise the rally, to determine a date and a place for the event, and also to articulate points of protest to deliver to government.
Protest groups are not the only ones to rally to action: it did not take long for politicians to react to the news. José Bové, an iconic anti-fracking figure in French politics who led the opposition to hydraulic fracturing in 2011, warned on his blog that "if the court follows the public prosecutor conclusions, the fracking ban would be questioned." He added that "the ruling would be a new opening for companies looking for shale oil and gas developments on French soil." Interviewed by the French national daily paper Libération, Bové, who is a member of Europe Ecologie--a coalition of France's "green" parties--in the European Parliament, also challenged the president and his government to re-affirm their opposition to fracking and to "resist the siren calls of oil companies."
Michèle Rivasi, who represents the South East region in the European Parliament, pointed out the "obvious contradiction and aberration of the possible decision while France has refused shale gas developments since 2011 with the passing of the anti-fracking law." Rivasi, the vice-chair of the European Greens in the European Parliament, said that shale gas exploration is inconsistent with recent climate commitments.
A member of French president, François Hollande's, own party has called for new legislation to reform the mining code to restrict completely the practice of fracking. The national secretary for energy transition within the centre-left Partie Socialiste, Sabine Buis, who also represents a constituency covered by the Montélimar permit, will sponsor a bill that is to be presented later this month to the national assembly. "The bill's goal is to avoid any non-conventional exploration operations," Buis said. "By re-writing the mining code, we will make sure contentious permits and authorisations are definitively repealed so our fossils resources will be keeping underground."
Meanwhile, politicians on the right may be more open to the idea of shale gas developments. The current conservative presidential candidates are all in favor of shale gas exploration. However, they also acknowledge that shale gas techniques must be safe for the environment.
In a radio interview on January 11, Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice and recently elected president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, expressed his willingness to conduct studies into the controversial technique while respecting the environment. "I want to know if we can use shale gas resources," he said. "I am not against the idea if we can find new exploration techniques that are safe for the environment."
Though the move to protest has been swift and vocal, it's not anything new for the country. The debate on whether France should develop its potential non-conventional resources has always been driven by politics and ideologies.
The decision to revisit the repeal of Total's permit came as a surprise to many, given both the 2011 anti-fracking ban and the fact that Schuepbach lost a similar legal fight last to Total's in December. But it is not that surprising according to Jean Louis Schilansky, director of the Non-Conventional Hydrocarbons Center. "Schuepbach's appeal was rejected because the US company's permit included hydraulic fracturing as an exploration technique, which is banned in France. For Total, it’s different," he said. "There is no mention of the fracking technique in the permit. The public prosecutor has probably noticed that there is no legal reason for the permit to be repealed."
But whatever the administrative court decides, it will not dramatically change the conversation. The ban on fracking is the law of the land. And given the lower oil prices in the market, shale gas developments don't seem worth the same risk as explorers were willing to take a few years ago.