In March 2010, the French government quietly modified France’s mining bill, giving energy companies the green light to explore shale gas fields in the south-east of France. Their mission: to find out how much natural gas lay below the ground, so that they could begin extracting it with the use of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.
One year later, and after months of pressure from potentially affected locals and environmentalists, the government withdrew the permits, and is now considering a total ban on such methods of gas extraction.
The story emerged in October last year, when the mayor of a village in the scenic Ardeche region of southern France received a call from French energy giant GDF-Suez. “I was told about the project over the phone”, Jacques Lebrat told FRANCE 24. “A week later someone from GDF came to talk to us at a town meeting. We asked a lot of questions but he had all the answers; he seemed very confident about the project. We weren’t worried, just curious.”
Theirs was not the only village concerned; larger towns and even the city of Montpellier fell into the 10,000 kilometre squared treasure trove. They were sitting on a veritable fortune.
A French ‘Gasland’?
Hydraulic fracturing, or ''fracking'', allows the extraction of natural gas from pockets deep beneath the surface. A well is drilled and millions of gallons of water, sand and hundreds of different chemicals are sent down to create a mini-earthquake, which breaks up the rocks to release the gas. The process was only discovered a few decades ago and has not been extensively tested in Europe.
“I did have my doubts,” Lebrat said. “These extractions were no small matter. They would impact waterworks, the land, and also the way the area would look. But when we took these concerns to GDF, they told us that the ground below the surface did not belong to us. Basically, we had no say.”
Little by little, animosity towards the project began to grow. An American documentary about the disastrous environmental impacts of hydraulic drilling, “Gasland
”, helped to fuel opposition. In December, some 300 people walked though the village of Villeneuve-de-Berg to voice their discontent. At the latest march in April, the number of demonstrators had grown to 20,000.
After tentative but fruitless efforts to appease the protesters, the government eventually changed tack. On 13 April it was announced that any current permits for exploration had been revoked.
On May 10, the French assembly will decide on whether to ban exploration entirely. More demonstrations are planned for the day.
Meanwhile, one of the energy giants involved (Texan giant Schuepbach Energy LLC, which is affiliated with GDF) has filed a legal complaint against the state concerning the decision to revoke their permit. The fight is not over yet.