12 may 2011

France to ban fracking of fossil fuels

By Peggy Hollinger in Paris Financial Times May 11 2011

French lawmakers have voted to ban a controversial technique used to extract shale gas and oil that opponents say contaminates the environment.

If the vote by the lower house of parliament passes the Senate next month, France will be the first country to ban hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The process injects water, chemicals and sand into rock formations to break them open and extract previously unattainable fossil fuel deposits.

The overwhelming vote by the National Assembly follows months of protest across France against a technique that environmentalists say threatens to pollute the water table. Many were outraged at the beginning of the year when it was discovered that several exploration permits had been granted without public consultation. The issue has become highly political as the government prepares for a difficult presidential campaign next year.

Far from claiming victory, environmentalists and opposition Socialists accused the government of yielding to industry lobbying, because last-minute amendments to the draft law will allow scientific research to be conducted on shale gas and oil and its environmental impact, albeit under the control of state entities. The government will deliver an annual report to parliament on the conditions of this research, the first due by the end of the year.

France relies on nuclear power for most of its electricity, but the Fukushima disaster has encouraged interest in other energy sources. The government has found itself caught between the possibility of exploiting new energy sources and addressing public concern over the environmental consequences. A report by the industry ministry recommended that test wells be drilled as it would be “damaging for the economy and for jobs for our country to forbid itself a deeper evaluation of this potential wealth”. Industry sources said they were relieved that the law had not revoked the permits already granted.

A study published this week by scientists at Duke University in North Carolina found no sign that fracking chemicals were polluting the water supply, but there was evidence that gas was leaking from shale wells into drinking water, creating an explosion risk.

A report by the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security last week found that Europe could cover its energy needs for the next 60 years if it was able to develop its unconventional gas resources.

Nonetheless the French oil companies association Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres said it “strongly regrets” the ban.

Assuming the bill is not significantly changed when it is debated in the upper house next month, companies will have to deliver a report on the techniques they plan to use to explore for fossil fuels. If these techniques include hydraulic fracking, their permits will be cancelled. If they fail to report the use of the banned technology and are found to be using it, executives could face a €75,000 ($107,000) fine and prison sentences.

Additional reporting by Ed Crooks in New York

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