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British MP dances on France’s shale grave

Britain hoping to attract shale investment as other governments in Europe resist development, Justin Jacobs writes

France's president Francois Hollande yesterday sought to draw a line under a long-running debate over whether his government should overturn the country’s ban on hydraulic fracturing and push ahead with shale-gas exploration. “While I am president, there will be no shale-gas exploration in France,” Hollande said in a television interview on the Bastille Day holiday.

Under intense political pressure and heading into a difficult election season, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy barred shale-gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in 2011. The ban was opposed by the industry and has been challenged in court, but Hollande’s Socialist Party has continued the policy.

He has continued the policy in spite of France’s huge shale potential. The country could hold 137 trillion cubic feet (cf) of recoverable shale-gas resources, dwarfing its conventional reserves of 380 billion cf, according to a study carried out by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). France also has substantial shale-oil potential. The EIA has estimated it could hold 4.7bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, accounting for more than a third of the shale oil resources in Western Europe. French major Total has said it is interested in exploring the shale potential in France’s Paris basin, as have US companies Schuepbach Energy and ZaZa Energy.

Given the potential and France’s economic woes, some in Hollande’s party have pushed for new efforts to explore France’s shale potential. Most recently, the industry minister Arnaud Montebourg suggested last week that the government should create a new state-owned company to pursue shale-gas exploration and push for the development of a more environmentally friendly fracking process to crack open France’s shale reserves. Others in the party have previously said that some form of shale-gas exploration should be allowed to go ahead.

But Hollande looks to have taken the issue off the table, at least until his term ends in 2017. “The debate on shale gas has gone on for too long,” he said.

Across the Channel in the UK, where the political winds are now firmly at the back of the shale industry, conservative MP Dan Byle took the opportunity to chide the French government: “It is regrettable that domestic politics in France … has led to president Hollande’s decision to rule out exploration for shale gas,” said Byle, who is head of the newly created All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas.

He added: “Whilst this decision may be seen as unhelpful for Europe as a whole, it does provide the UK with an opportunity to lead the way in continuing to develop transparent, evidence-based discussions around the issue of unconventional oil and gas development in the UK.”

After a period of uncertainty over the issue, the Conservative government in the UK has thrown its support behind nascent shale exploration efforts in the country. With exploration faltering elsewhere, it also appears keen now to carry the torch for shale development in Europe. 

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