Shale Gas threat to France’s Nougat Capital

The self-styled Nougat Capital of the world — Montélimar in the Drôme may soon find itself transformed into shale capital of France against the wishes of its inhabitants and others in the south eastern départements of Hérault, Aveyron, Lozère and Ardèche.

Euro MEP José Bové is leading regional protest to stop shale gas drilling, in what some bill the fight of the decade

That is if Big Oil has its way. For France awarded three exploration licenses in March to the domestic oil group Total and to Texas-based Schuepbach Energy in a JV with GDF Suez. These permits cover over 10,000 km2 in the Hérault, Aveyron, Lozère, Ardèche and Drôme.

But José Bové, the man who famously led a strike force to demolish a McDonald’s restaurant near the Millau bridge, is coordinating campaigns to block the moves. He says the inhabitants are up in arms at plans to drill for shale gas and an Internet petition demanding a moratorium has so far attracted more than 31,000 signatures.

Total France (the oil major) has reportedly estimated that the area for which it has been granted a survey license could contain as much as 2380 billion m3 of shale gas. “Applying a recovery rate of 40% (the upper range in the US) this would produce more than 950 billion m3, or 21 times the current annual gas consumption in France”, the company announced recently. Total is committed to spending 37.8 million euros over five years on exploration of its concession areas.

Nevertheless the Director General of Total Exploration & Production Yves-Louis Darricarrère prefers to downplay the expectations for the site.

“Our estimate is based on the limited data we have gathered there about forty years ago,” he said. “Our calculations involve multiplying the area of the permit by an average grade of gas (….). Any figure given today is purely theoretical and can never be an estimate of the volume that could be produced,” he said.

Claude Lamiral head of oil exploration in France at the French Petroleum Institute told AFP, “the world’s (shale gas) reserves account for more than four times those of conventional gas. Eight to nine research applications, mainly in the south-east of France are currently being processed.”

However inhabitants, pressures groups, local mayors and regional councils have all made their displeasure known over the lack of public consultation on the drilling plans. So loud has been the noise that Paris seems to be wavering and has announced a row back at least until after the 2012 presidential elections.

Guillaume Vermorel of the “Stop au gaz de schiste” protest group which staged three meetings in three days in southern Ardèche département and in Montélimar in the Drôme said the number of citizens attending reflected “growing concerns about the ecological impact the proposed drilling could have on the region. The soil of Ardèche gorge is a highly fractured limestone with very porous rock formations and presenting a high risk of underground spreading of chemical pollutants,” he said.

The Socialist President of the Rhône-Alpes Region, Jean-Jack Queyranne has demanded the cancellation of decree/law of March 2010 (which authorised permits for exploratory shale gas operations). He warned of “contamination of aquifers, massive use of scarce water for drilling, the huge visual eyesore, and lack of transparency in the procedure”

As the chorus of criticism rose Ecology and Sustainable Development Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, was forced to make a statement to the national assembly insisting France had no plans to follow the American example (in shale drilling) meaning use of “methods that are technically dangerous to the environment”.

She said she would set up a taskforce to “assess the environmental issues” around shale gas. “No permission to work on shale gas will be given before this taskforce reports,” she said. An interim report is expected in April and the final report is scheduled for June.

The Minister appears to have pulled the carpet out from under on the oil companies for now but probably only until after the next elections. The newspaper Libération cites her as saying if the only way to extract the shale gas is the (US) fracturing way then we will say no way!

Nathalie Kosciuscko-Morizet , Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development reacting to pressure from Total to speed up the process for exploration of potential shale gas reserves in the Cevennes, told the newspaper Libération: ” Exploring using the techniques of drilling requires authorization to initiate work. No such request has been filed for shale gas”.

She used a formula of words that might yet prove to be a get out clause should Bové and his supporters raise sufficient popular ire. She reportedly observed: ” To recover the dispersed gas the rock formations are injected with extremely aggressive products. The landscape is ravaged, water is polluted, security is doubtful. We will insist the companies demonstrate they can meet these concerns.”

The minister went on to tell Libération: “We must clear up confusion: no operating licenses have been granted in France. Only permits for research, that is to say exploration is not allowed. Research projects may be carried out by airborne measurement or on land. Exploration drilling techniques requires authorization . No such request has been filed for shale gas. However, three permits were issued in October 2010 for research into oil shale in the Seine-et-Marne. The taskforce set up in conjunction with (Industry Minister) Eric Besson focuses particularly on evaluating the environmental impact of such drilling.”

Oil companies naturally defend the lucrative business opportunities on offer. According to TF1 News quoting the business paper Les Echos: “Total is actively seeking partners to explore south-eastern France in a search for shale gas.” Les Echos quotes an internal document sent by the group to interested oil companies in which Total reports that it has identified a site of “high potential “. Total adds that the shale gas opportunity is “important and very significant”. Total has published an “offer of entry ” to partners interested in its exploration permits in Montélimar (Drôme) Total estimates that the area could contain reserves of up to 2380 billion m3 of gas, equivalent to a minimum of ten years of French consumption and a maximum of 21 years

Just how the nougat makers of Montélimar will take to having the region invaded by Texan oil drillers is unclear. The Syndicat Français de Fabricants de Nougat de Montélimar et de Ses Dérivés, the producer’s association says the nougat industry employs nearly 300 people and has an annual output of some 3500 tons of tasty sweet, with exports mainly going to the UK , Belgium and Germany.

See interview below with a Total spokesman on the “promising future” for shale gas in France:

(Update: We regret to note that this video has now been removed subsequent to publication).
Shale gas operations are hotly contested in north America and elsewhere with a recent UK report by University of Manchester scientists warning about negative impacts.
The report, commissioned by The Co-operative and written by the internationally-respected Tyndall Centre, part of The University of Manchester, says government should impose an immediate moratorium on the extraction of natural gas from the UK’s shale formations until all the ecological implications are fully understood
The paper highlights evidence from the US, which suggests shale gas extraction brings a significant risk of groundwater contamination.

The problems with shale gas extraction is that the technology research and development is mainly north American and not enough knowledge has yet been accumulated by EU companies and member states to assess the advantages and disadvantages with sufficient depth.

The safety of modern hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology used to crack deep deposits of gas-rich shale rock has been called into question in the US by “Gasland,” an HBO documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox, stirring passions particularly in the state of New York where ecologists fear contamination of the underground water system and fresh water supplies to the city of New York.
See below:

Story: Ken Pottinger

Read more about the shale gas fracking industry in this a recent piece by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica which is republished with permission. The article outlines a pollution controversy in the US, which is the source of the technology likely to be brought into use in France.

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