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France has real potential for shale gas development

... but only if the industry can co-exist with the legions of tourists who help prop up the country's economy

FRANCE has "real potential" for shale gas exploration, but only if the industry can co-exist with the legions of tourists who help prop up the country's economy, according to a senior geologist.

"I think it can be possible to have tourism and shale gas, but we have to explain," Roland Vially, senior geologist at the French Institute of Petroleum, said this week.

There are three main sedimentary basins in France. According to Vially, the area with the most potential is the western margin of the southeast basin, which includes the Ardéchoise and Cévenole regions. Both are already a hive of activity – but so far it is being generated by tourists descending on southern France for their summer holidays

France consumes 43bn cubic metres (cm) a year of natural gas. Most of this is imported from Russia, Norway and the Netherlands. Energy companies have already expressed interest in shale-gas exploration in France. Total was granted a permit in March to explore in the Montelimar region, which spans 1,671 square miles, for five years. US company Schuepbach Energy and GDF Suez also received three-year permits in the Villeneuve-de-Berg and Nant areas.

Vially says the absence of a gas production industry in France means any potential developer would have to contact the local authorities to explain to the public what they wanted to do – and what shale gas is. This could create considerable costs for companies wanting to develop resources, alongside the investment in infrastructure that they would have to lay out.

But the bigger problem are the pesky tourists. Tourism in these areas brings in substantial revenue for the French government and shale-gas exploration would undoubtedly disrupt it. France was the top tourist destination of 2009 with over 74 million visitors who bring in 6% of the country's revenue. Vially admits French local authorities will be reluctant to jeopardise such lucrative tourism in the area, but he maintains that "the two are not incompatible."

"Of course tourism is very important for the economy, but the government wants to encourage industry. We have to make a big effort to explain to people what it is."

Vially says the need for this dialogue between the general public and energy companies looking to invest is "an opportunity not a constraint". Honest and transparent communication with the public in the early stages of exploration is essential to allowing people to accept it, he says.

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