French Fraccing Ban: A Researcher’s Perspective
Some believe that French shale basins are some of the most promising for the production of shale gas, but France’s law banning hydraulic fracturing took effect nearly six months ago this year. The legislation sent the nascent European conventional gas industry reeling. Suddenly, other countries were questioning whether or not they should explore and exploit their shale basins.
Raymond Michels, Doctor of Organic Geochemistry Research at Geology and Resources Management Mineral and Energy, a national agency for scientific research in France, spoke to Natural Gas Europe at the Tight and Shale Gas Summit in Budapest, Hungary.
In terms of what had happened in France regarding shale gas – the progression from the awarding of exploration concessions up to the eventual fraccing ban - he said there were several aspects. For one, the environmental.
“The French are committed to significant efforts in the future concerning the CO2 emission issues: the Kyoto Protocol, for instance,” he explained. “So developing petroleum or gas exploitation technology in France is in contradiction with that. The idea is that we should get rid of fossil fuels and turn to something that does not emit CO2, so I see here one problem.”
According to Michels, the other problem was that over the past 30 years France had been getting rid of heavy industry: “We stopped coal mining activities, steel activities. France does not have such a big tradition in petroleum activities, so people also don’t understand what it means to start producing shale gas exploration, exploitation. When you’ve stopped industrial activity for 30 years, people change to other lifestyles and I guess it’s more difficult to accept going back to heavy industry, or to something that looks like heavy industry.”
In contrast, he said, in the US people were living sometimes in the middle of oil fields, there were airports in oilfields, universities in oilfields. “So if you drill some more it’s not going to be something unusual to people.”
He continued, “While if you’re living in a country where nobody ever drilled anything and suddenly you see these companies coming in, that’s kind of scary. So people are scared and of course then you have all this information coming from films like Gasland and so on. These things all bring difficulties for acceptance of shale gas issues.”
As to whether the French government provided enough information to the public on the issue, Mr. Michels said he believed no one anticipated how things would turn out: that hydraulic fracturing would actually be banned throughout France.
“Companies have asked for exploration drilling like they have usually,” he recalled. “The exploration blocks have existed in France some time for gas and oil, like in the Paris basin, some time for coal, like in eastern France, and so the companies asking for exploration permits and drilling was not unusual – that’s why the government granted those permissions.’
“The companies, before doing the drilling, supply locals with information, and then people understood that it had to do with shale gas - and of course going back to the environmental issues, the Gasland movie and so on - then the opposition grew and it went from the public to the politicians.
“So it went back to the state and the state went first to stop it, because they were not prepared for that,” explained Michels. “Meanwhile, there were all the discussions with people who were more inclined to follow the environmental sentiments and they came to the law that would ban hydraulic fracturing.”
“We are having elections in 2012, so for the moment there will be no political decision on lifting that ban.”
He said the hydrofraccing ban was actually causing other problems in France, because the technology was also used for geothermic energy, a renewable energy source.
Now, anxious concession owners who would like to exploit shale gas in France are probably hoping for the ban to blow over. But will it be possible to change the collective mindset of the French public?
Mr. Michels said, “You cannot convince people just based on the ideas or based on propaganda. It’s not environmental people against industrial people; it’s all about the needs of the country. Today you are seeing that France has nuclear energy, which is one important issue. That amount of energy we do not need in the form of hydrocarbons. France is importing gas and oil and obviously the French economy is rich enough to afford that, so local exploitation of shale gas is maybe today, from an economic point of view, not an issue.”
He said he believed that shale gas production could be in the future. “This is what we have to prepare for. If there is any problem to bring France to exploit this gas, then the government needs to know what the reserves are and how it should be regulated to exploit it properly.
“It’s not like we should force people to accept shale gas and do it,” he added. “We’ll see if we need it in the future, and if we do we should be ready. Its not one interest battling another. There are countries for which shale gas is an opportunity, and of course they will do it.”
Information about shale gas, according to him, was always important.
“People know about the drawbacks of some aspects of shale gas, which is an industrial activity. If you construct a plan to build cars, you know there will be waste – so people measure what the economical benefits of constructing this plant and they take into account the drawbacks like pollution of water, higher traffic in the area, and you weigh them and decide whether or not you construct that plant.”
“It’s the same with shale gas,” he continued. We have to figure out what is acceptable in terms of impact and what are the benefits. It’s not a matter that we should impose shale gas on the people; it’s always an equilibrium between the needs, the economic value of something and the pollution that comes with it – and the solutions that you can devise to deal with these aspects.”
Trained as a geologist, Mr. Michels does research in organic chemistry that deals with the composition origins of natural gas, coal and petroleum. He also teaches petroleum systems in France.
“So the shale gas issues in terms of training of students for the future is important. I have to understand what the implications of this are in terms of scientific issues, but also in terms of training for students.”
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