Fracking: Big Business Wants U-Turn

Will French energy and oil interests succeed in their current push to overturn the country’s outright ban on fracking, a move which would likely ignite instant uproar in the fiercely-opposed countryside?

Cécile Duflot Minister for Housing  opposes fracking (Credit Wikipedia)

Cécile Duflot Minister for Housing opposes fracking (Credit Wikipedia)

On July 14 last year President François Hollande made a formal commitment opposing fracking which effectively established a moratorium on the matter through to May 2017.

 There will be no fracking in France while I am President, says François Hollande (*) clearly hoping that such unequivocal words — delivered as fellow citizens languidly basked in a hot sunny 14 Juillet holiday — will finally put a hugely sensitive public issue to rest.

*(President Hollande’s actual words as reported by AFP were: “As long as I am president, there were will be no exploration for shale gas,” Hollande said during a Bastille Day interview with top television channels.) 

Despite this official no-to-fracking stance French oil interests are now pushing hard to bring about a change of heart.

The industry appears to have been buoyed by the European Union’s recent non-binding green light, clearing the way for private investment in fracking in EU member states: “…on January 22, 2014, the European Union adopted a series of non-binding recommendations on companies engaging in hydraulic fracturing within the EU’s borders. The newly released recommendation calls for member states to adopt “minimum principles” for fracking in each member country, such as, for example, requiring a careful assessment of environmental impacts and risks, ensuring that wells conform to best practice standards, monitoring environmental effects, and informing the public about materials utilized in individual wells. The legislations calls for member states to apply the principles within six months and to report to the EU annually about what specific steps are being taken to comply. The EU’s legislation specifically rejected calls for sweeping and legally-binding regulations on the fracking industry that could have slowed, or even stayed, exploration activity altogether.”

On February 5 according to the Stop Gaz de Schiste website Jean-Louis Schilansky, President of the French Union of Petroleum Industries (UFIP) formally hitched the industry’s bandwagon to that of Arnaud Montebourg, the only minister in President Hollande’s Greens-Socialist coalition government who is openly a partisan to the development of fracking and shale gas in France.

True he does include the proviso that the industry must find alternative ways of bringing the gas to the surface by methods that do not risk the pollution and other dangers conventional fracking is blamed for. (See Mountbourg defending his position on a Europe 1 video clip for January 23 below. He told Europe 1 that France wanted to “advance research into shale gas extraction”).

Aware of the vehement Green’s opposition to fracking coupled with the prolonged and extensive grass roots campaign that blocked the earlier efforts at exploiting the resources, Ecology Minister Philippe Martin firmly restated the official position the day after the Europe 1 show.

Arnaud Montebourg the only government partisan of fracking. Credit Mathieu Delmestre)

Arnaud Montebourg the only government partisan of fracking. (Credit Mathieu Delmestre)

“The Minister of Ecology Philippe Martin was quick to remind his government colleague of the official position. Philippe Martin told French news agency AFP he would reiterate this view ‘every time’ his colleague spoke on the issue. Martin said: ‘I take this opportunity to say to those who repeatedly return to the charge to try to convince me that we should be extracting fossil hydrocarbons trapped in shale rock via fracking, that no, that is not the right direction. … The right direction is as stated by the President of the Republic, that we pursue our efforts to reduce by 30% our consumption of hydrocarbons by 2030′. Thus nothing has changed since Arnaud Montebourg’s initial remarks on the subject made July 2013. The government does not intend to move an inch on this , the minister told AFP.”

His views were underlined by Cécile Duflot Minister for Housing and former leader of Europe Ecology – the Greens who according to AFP reiterated the government’s position and her party’s opposition to the exploitation of shale in France. She firmly rejected the proposal of her colleague Arnaud Montebourg, who is seeking a ‘clean’ technique for extracting these resources.  Montebourg is said to be keen on a new experimental technique using heptafluropropane as an alternative to hydraulic fracturing. See his remarks in this video clip:

EXTRAIT – Gaz de schiste : “il faut travailler… par Europe1fr
“Il faut travailler à trouver des techniques propres”, Nicolas Poincaré reçoit Arnaud Montebourg, ministre du Redressement productif dans Le Grand Forum, Europe Soir Nicolas Poincare 23/01/2014 – 18:30.

So that at least is the view that will hold sway until both the two-round municipal elections on March 23 and the European Parliament elections on May 25, are out of the way.

However sensing perhaps some presidential weakness – the president’s popularity is at its lowest ebb ever with only 16% of those polled recently holding a favourable view of him – (YouGov monthly barometer for “Le Huffington Post” and i<Télé published Thursday Feb 13) and his recent policy u-turns, powerful business lobbies are making determined efforts to get the ban rescinded.

Anti-fracking groups have expressed fears that economic interests behind a major pressure campaign to force a fracking U-turn, will not be deterred.

According to the Stop Gaz de Schiste website: “The UFIP campaign launched a few days ago is hard hitting. It began with a test balloon launched by Arnaud Montebourg on Europe 1: he claimed had not given up his mission of convincing President Hollande to row back on his promise not to exploit shale gas, and said the industry must work to find a clean technology.

“This was followed by remarks by the Managing Director of Total, Christophe de Margerie who praised Montebourg’s reported remarks:  ‘Nous ne voulons pas interdire le développement du gaz de schiste. Par contre, on va demander à ceux qui veulent le faire d’être extraordinairement respectueux de l’environnement, de faire attention.’  ‘Very good! This is just the kind of message we would like to see everywhere’, de Margerie said. However he did admit the industry had a problem in explaining the advantages of shale to the French people. But this he hopes will change. ‘Total’s recent contract to frack for shale gas in the UK will help change the minds of the French authorities’, he said.

“Meanwhile Le Canard enchaîné, the satrical weekly, reported that Montebourg planned to reveal more details of his plan after the municipal elections. He is said to have a report ‘proving that we can carry out hydraulic fracturing … using liquefied gas, specifically C3HF7 or heptafluropropane’.”

The Stop Gaz de Schiste website continues: “This was followed by an appeal from Maud Fontenoy, a French navigator and president of the Foundation for the Protection of Oceans, who maintains that ‘shale gas has become an ecological asset’ and that the French have been badly misinformed since only 24% are in favour of it. ‘Thanks to advances in research, hydraulic fracturing is not the only method of extracting shale gas. By exploiting gas and oil shale, we could create hundreds of thousands of jobs,’ she told the Midi-Libre newspaper.

“And finally according to the website Usine Nouvelle the launch of a promotional video about shale gas and against Gasland will appear soon. A group of oil services companies has produced a film about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing supposed to wipe the floor with the Oscar-winning documentary Gasland which serves as the flagship of anti-shale gas groups.

Pascal Baylocq coordinator of the documentary said it aimed to restore the truth. According to him, ‘the release of Gasland caused anxiety during the presidential electoral campaign in 2012 and in turn led to a too rapid passing of the law banning hydraulic fracturing.”

He added: ‘The scene of the tap igniting thanks to methane gas in the water supply as shown in Gasland was a lie.’  The rebuttal film commissioned by the French oil industry is certain to be more subtle than its American counterpart called Truthland. For his part making clear the industry is a long way from defeated Mr. Schilansky has stated: ‘It’s a long saga, but we will not give up’.”

Meanwhile Josh Fox, director of Gasland has released an 18 minute rebuttal of the claims that his original film was inaccurate and misleading. Called “The Sky is Pink” his film offers a response to the attacks from the pro-shale lobby:


updated2crop-150x76While in a rebuttal of the rebuttal as it were, here are clips from FrackNation, a documentary by Phelim McAleer which sets out to counter the arguments used in Gasland. As Martin Cullip writing in the UK online magazine Spiked puts it, “One by one, FrackNation challenges the claims made by Gasland and finds them to be fraudulent or exaggerated”:

As it turns out Phelim McAleer is a controversial researcher and some of his documentaries have been sharply criticised. This one raised the hackles of Iris Marie Bloom, founder of Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia-based grassroots nonprofit organisation who sets out to deconstruct it here.

French News Online has been at the forefront of English language publications in France in highlighting fierce grass roots opposition to fracking and concerns about its impact on terroir, tourism, farming , the environment and quality of life. See our selection of reports below.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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