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French frack ban to stay

France will not revisit its ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in shale gas exploration following the victory of Francois Hollande in last month’s presidential election, the country’s energy minister has said.

“The government maintains its position clearly and distinctly on the prohibition of shale-gas exploration. Nowhere in the world has it been shown that this operation could be done without significant environmental damage and significant risks to health,” Delphine Batho, France’s minister for energy and the environment said in an interview 20 July. “The question is not on the agenda.”   

Batho’s comments will silence growing speculation that Hollande would seek to reopen the debate over shale gas exploration in France, which, in June last year, became the first country to ban the technique.

Like many countries across Europe, France is thought to have sizable shale-gas deposits. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that France has 180 trillion cubic feet (cf) of recoverable shale-gas resources, second in Europe behind Poland, and many times more than the country’s 200 billion cf of proved gas reserves.

This potential led a number of companies to snap up shale prospective acreage in the country’s Paris and South-East basins in 2010. But in October 2011, after the country’s fracking ban was put in place, the country revoked the three shale-gas licences it had awarded where companies said they intended to frack their exploration wells. 

French major Total lost its Montelimar licence and Texas-based independent Schuepbach Energy had its licences in Nant and Villeneuve-de-Berg cancelled. Other companies, such as US-based Toreador Resources, now known as ZaZa Energy, and Canada’s Vermillion Energy managed to retain their shale-gas prospective licences by saying that they would not carry out fracking operations as part of their exploration programmes.

Although Batho was definitive in her opposition to fracking, she did leave the door open to future shale-gas exploration. If a new technology was developed to exploit shale gas, then, Batho said, the country would have a “real democratic debate” about it.

After being stung by widespread opposition to fracking, the industry has started to develop new techniques to crack oil- and gas-rich shales. Among the technologies being explored, the industry is looking to develop chemical-free fracking fluids and water-free fracking. Opponents to shale gas development have highlighted fears that harmful chemicals used in fracking could migrate into groundwater supplies and that exploration is too water-intensive for drier regions.

The controversy surrounding fracking has divided Europe. Countries heavily reliant on Russian gas imports have generally embraced exploration for shale gas, with Poland leading the charge. Others, though, have moved much more cautiously, with a number of countries and regions putting moratoria on shale-gas exploration.

The impetus to exploit shale gas resources has not been strong in France. The country’s well-developed nuclear energy industry means that France relies on gas for only about 15% of its energy demand. And even though the country is heavily dependent on imports to meet its gas needs, it has a relatively well-diversified mix of pipeline and liquefied natural gas suppliers, which has made it less susceptible to supply disruptions.

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