2017: the year of the battle over shale gas in France

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The big question for environmental activists, and one of the issues in the forthcoming presidential elections in France, is whether the future president will be for or against shale gas.

The recent climate-sceptic pronouncements from Nicolas Sarkozy have turbo-charged the start of the electoral campaign. On 14 September the former President of the Republic announced that “humans are not solely responsible” for climate change, just one of numerous u-turns on the subject by the man seeking to lead the Republicans party (Les Républicains, or LR).

It was under the Sarkozy presidency that fracking was banned in July 2011 – a decision that placed France in the ecological avant-garde.

But it was the political context of that year that explains why the Loi Jacob (Jacob’s Law, so-called because it was tabled by Christian Jacob, president of the centre-right Union pour un mouvement populaire, or Union for a Popular Movement party, which is now LR) was adopted under a right-wing government. At the time, thousands of people were demonstrating against shale gas and fracking, forcing the political class to take a position on the subject.

“As public opinion was broadly against it and elections were looming, the right didn’t really have a choice, it fell in behind the general view of the population,” recalls Juliette Renaud, head of the extractive industries campaign for Friends of the Earth France.

“Today, LR, which has always been susceptible to the industrial lobby, has finally returned to its “natural” place on this issue”.

This is borne out by the words of Luc Chatel, President of the LR’s National Council, who stated in February that it should be the party of “shale gas and GMOs”.

 

The industrialists’ expectations

French multinationals in the hydrocarbon and chemical industries have high expectations of this election. They have been preparing for it for years.

Several of the giants in the sector, such as Total, Engie and Vallourec got together in 2014 to create an organisation providing “documentation and information” on shale gas: The Centre for non-Conventional Hydrocarbons (Centre pour les hydrocarbures non-conventionnels, or CHNC).

“We don’t lobby,” says its chairman, Jean-Louis Schilansky, who is also head of the enterprises of France Movement (Mouvement des entreprises de France) in Paris. He is open about the aims of CHNC, however.

“The centre was created as a response to the excessively emotional debate that was developing around shale gas in 2011,” he explains. “With the prospect of the presidential election, we wanted an organisation that was capable of enlightening politicians on the subject”.

One of the big issues for industrialists is whether the next government will permit the use of fracking for scientific purposes. It is the loophole in the Loi Jacob: while article 1 bans fracking, article 2 allows for research. This must however be overseen by a commission which thus far has not been created because NGOs have blocked it by refusing to take part – much to the chagrin of the oil companies who argue the need to evaluate France’s underground resources.

“Even though some European countries have decided not to extract shale gas, they have at least evaluated their resources,” says Schilansky. “Here in France, with this doctrine of ‘we don’t want to know, we don’t want to see’. The precautionary principle is being applied to the extreme”.

The loophole in the Loi Jacob and the possibility of a change of government has motivated the industrialists to do their utmost to keep their research permits and to get new ones.

Proof of this is Total’s tenacious battle to recover its Montélimar permit – for an area of 4,732 km2 covering three departments – which was withdrawn in 2011. Last January the courts reinstated it, but the state is appealing.

Another sign of the industrialists’ perseverance is the 136 new applications currently being studied by the Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.

France’s Mining Code does not distinguish between conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons, but environmental activists maintain that most of these new permits concern shale gas or oil, as the majority of conventional resources on French territory have already been mined.

“The fact that industrialists are still applying for permits shows that they have not totally given up on mining for shale gas, despite the ban on fracking,” says Renaud. “The industrialists are clearly playing a waiting game, notably waiting for the price of oil to rise and for the right political conditions to come together to change the law and enable them to start mining.”

The last permits to be granted by the Ministry were validated two months before COP21, giving rise to strong criticism from environmental activists, accusing the government of being “ambiguous” on the subject.

The criticism continues, even though the socialist government has always claimed to be against shale gas.

 

2017: a crucial year for the environment

NGOs are also very active, because the stakes are high.

“2017 will be a crucial year for the environment,” says Maxime Combes, a member of the international alternative globalisation movement, Attac.

“You can well imagine that if there is political change in France, the question of shale gas will take centre stage again”.

Environmental activists are therefore working hard to ensure that climate change is part of the campaign. But it’s a hard task because security and religion are the main issues for the moment.

Some people, such as Sabine Buis, are trying to fight the battle in the legal field. Buis is a member of parliament for the Ardèche department in south-central France and vice-chair of the National Assembly’s study group on shale gas, which recently proposed a bill to tighten up the loopholes in the 2011 law.

She is proposing to include in the Mining Code a ban on exploring and extracting non-conventional liquid and gas hydrocarbons, and to repeal the 2011 law.

“We have to close the door on shale gas and turn the page on fossil fuels,” she argues.

“Even if there could be alternatives solutions to fracking, that’s not the point. A political stand is needed, not a debate on the techniques that could be used.”

Combes also recalls the importance of the international context: “In the age of COP21 and in light of the international commitments that have been taken on the urgent need for climate action, we must mobilise our intellectual and economic resources to put in place energy transition and to invest in renewable energies,” she insists.

During the last presidential race, the candidates were called on to say where they stood in the environmental debate, and we should not forget the Ecological Pact proposed by Nicolas Hulot in 2007.

While the environment was a central concern in the last two electoral campaigns, today, it seems, such concerns are far removed from the political programme.

 

This story has been translated from French.