Buried Report: Shale Gas Not Safe for Hollande's Political Health

The revelations made by The Figaro, France's main conservative daily paper, that the government buried its own report underlining the benefits of shale gas for the economy in a much safer way than the controversial fracking technique raise questions. Critics say François Hollande is more concerned about his re-election prospects and protecting his leftist allies than make people back to work. 

Former outspoken Economic Minister Arnaud Montebourg who retired from politics who recently joined Habitat, a leading retailer of household furnishings is back in the spotlight.The last time his name was mentioned in the news was in February when he was hurt in a New York City restaurant when a large mirror was falling off the wall while he was taking his breakfast. This time it’s about his government record. In 2012, he asked government experts to conduct a report on alternative way of exploring shale gas and shale oil. Montebourg has never hidden he was in favor of shale gas and shale oil exploration if safe for the environment.

The content of this report would have never been released if The Figaro had not revealed the government plan to bury the report. The situation is very embarrassing for President François Hollande. The report suggest to exploit shale gas and shale oil through the fluoropropane, a non-flammable gas used in extinguishers. An alternative technology safe for the environment produced by Ecorp Stim, a US company that could be experimented through micro-drilling operations in the Paris basin and the South East of France. Moreover, the report points out a 10 billion of euros win for the economy and an increase of job creation. Between 120,000 and 225,000 jobs. It’s not irrelevant in a country struggling with a 10% unemployment rate.

This alternative to hydraulic fracturing is not perfect. The high cost may explain why it has almost never been experimented anywhere in the world. A parliamentary investigation committee focusing on alternatives to fracking ruled out the fluoropropane technique in 2013 because of the cost and the lack of experimentation abroad. “The economic viability remains to be demonstrate. We do not know anything about the costs”, French Oil Industry Association (UFIP) admitted.

Some experts argue this technology may not be as safe for the environment as mentioned in the report. Thibault Laconde, engineer and environment lawyer explains why the fluoropropane may have a negative impact on climate change. “1 tonne of fluoropropane has the same effect than 3000 tons of greenhouse gas. 5% of the gas could be wasted during the drilling operations”. 

Big reactions across the aisle

It did not take too long for the right wing opposition UMP party to respond in attacking the Hollande decision in its weekly press conference. “We are missing a huge opportunity whereas the report shows there is an alternative solution to the fracking technique safe for the environment that would add between 100 000 and 200 000 jobs to the economy. We should try to do everything we can to reduce the energy costs and the high numbers of people who are unemployed by boosting the job creation”. UMP spokesman Sebastien Huygues said the government should put the full report on the table.

This major development in the shale gas debate is a gift to former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The newly elected leader of the UMP who is mulling another bid for the presidency is in favor of shale gas explorations and could use the report to describe Hollande as an anti-job creator. Sarkozy has flip flopped on the issue. His party voted the anti fracking bill back in 2011 when he was President and it could be problematic for re-election prospects. The socialist presumptive candidate will certainly be judged on the economy and his ability to deliver a key promise he made several times before and after the election: The unemployment rate will go down. If not, he insists several times he will not seek re-election… 

Critics blames Hollande for the supposed political motives that led to the decision to bury the report. “The government doesn’t want to raise the issue to make a political favor the Greens because they would join the government in the coming weeks”, commented UMP's Sebastien Huygues.

André Berkoff, a journalist and commentator on the LCI news channel is disappointed with the political tactics that prevent the country to have a debate. “We would like to know if shale gas drillings are really bad for the environment or if the fluoropropane is a serious alternative. Let’s say it and talk about it. We need a real debate because there is no debate for now. Is it for the 1.6% of the votes the Greens got in the local elections that François Hollande denied the report? It makes no sense. We can’t have a government that bury reports for electoral reasons".

The controversy does not come just from the media or the right. Two lawmakers from the president own party distanced themselves from the decision to bury the report and the debate on shale gas. Interviewed on ITELE news channel, Senator Marie-Noël Lienemann refused all form of obscurantism. “If there is a technique allowing to exploit shale gas with no impact on the environment, we must have in-depth studies to look at closely”, she said. Christian Bataille, a congressman representing a northern district keep saying research is “essential”: “Arnaud Montebourg reacted positively to our report but the document was slept away at the highest government level because it irritated the Greens...”, Bataille said on LCI news channel.  

The Greens are leading from the outside

Giving his low approval ratings, under 30% in most polls, Hollande needs to re-unite the left behind him to ensure he can reach the second round in the 2017 presidential race. It’s not a done deal giving the surge of far-right National Front impacting not just his party but the traditional allies of the Socialists like the Greens. The division of the left was one of the main reasons why The Socialist Party lost two third of General Councils in the latest local elections.

To convince the Green Party to not present a candidate or to make sure a proportion of Greens voters will vote for Hollande in the first round. That’s why there is some talks behind closed doors about offering cabinet positions to the ecologists.  Some Green members want to join the government, others are opposed. A political crisis within the party that could led to a split. Embracing a report that let the door open to future shale gas explorations would ultimately alienate the Greens. The Socialists cannot win the presidency without the Greens, whether they are in or out of the government.

That’s why Segolene Royal, the Minister of Environment immediately reacted to the news on Twitter. “Nothing to hide. Shale gases are outdated. Let’s do the energy transition. Invest into renewable ressources. I refuse all shale gas drilling requests despite of the Canadian lobbies”. 

This echoed reactions from Greens elected officials. “Shale gas causes pollution by definition, it’s a greenhouse gas”, said Denis Baupin, Paris Deputy Mayor. “The decision is appropriate. The Fossil fuels can’t be part of the energy transition”, he added on his Twitter account. François de Rugy, a congressman often cited as a future member of the Government went beyond in his explanation. “The shale gas propaganda is using for a while the argument that there is an alternative technique to fracking but this technology is not operational. Oil companies are not considering it and the impact on the environment is not neutral. Shale oil and gas effect on the soil cannot be neutral”.

Hollande opened a new chapter of his presidency early this year when he launched the Climate Change Conference talks calling world leaders to strike a deal. After Copenhagen in 2009, Paris will welcome the Climate conference (COP21) in December. If a deal is reached, it could boost Hollande credentials with Greens voters and it will eventually be considered as a key element of his legacy one year from the next presidential campaign. At that time of their tenure, sitting presidents always wondering how their name can be read and written in history books. It’s hard to imagine a country welcoming a climate change conference taking steps towards shale gas explorations in the same time.  

The critic is fair in today’s political environment but Hollande is not necessarily the only one to blame. Governments from the left or the right has a long record of burying reports. It may take longer to recover burying reports than drilling for shale gas and shale oil on French soil…


Kevin Bonnaud

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