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France

French govt ‘clean fracking’ idea is 'backdoor bid' for public support

© AFP - Arnaud Montebourg

Text by Anne-Diandra LOUARN

Latest update : 2014-02-02

French Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg wants to re-open the fracking debate in France, where the controversial method for extracting shale gas remains outlawed for environmental reasons.

According to weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchainé this week, Montebourg believes that so-called “clean fracking”, using treated non-flammable propane gas rather than water, is more environmentally friendly.

But France’s ruling socialists remain deeply split on the issue of fracking, by which pressurised liquid is used to fracture underground rock formations in order to release gas, a process environmentalists say can contaminate ground water and even cause earthquakes.

French President François Hollande has promised that fracking would remain banned in France while he is president, and the country's Green Party is vehemently opposed to legalising a process which French energy giant Total is championing enthusiastically in the UK.

Questions remain as to whether using non-flammable liquid propane is any cleaner or safer than using high-pressure water, or whether it will bring the same economic benefits to France as it has to the USA, where the price of gas has tumbled since fracking began.

Thomas Porcher, economist and professor in primary resource management at the ESG MS Management School, in Paris gives his perspective.

FRANCE 24: What do we know about using propane for fracking? Is it any cleaner than using water?

Thomas Porcher: Some tests on fracking with propane – a volatile and highly inflammable gas – have already taken place. The treated propane (fluoropropane) that Montebourg refers to is less dangerous in this respect. But there has not been sufficient testing to confirm that it is any safer or cleaner than hydraulic fracking.

FRANCE 24: What does France stand to gain from legalising fracking using this method?

Porcher: I don’t see any advantage. Of course there are alternatives to hydraulic fracking, but if most countries use water to extract the gas, they do so because it is cheaper. And the hydraulic fracking process represents 56 percent of the total cost of extracting the gas, the rest being made up by the cost of drilling and transporting the gas.

If France went ahead and used propane, the cost would be much higher because treated propane is a more expensive resource than water. You would also have to factor in the costs of testing, which would also be considerable, when you consider we would be the only country in the world to use this technique.

All this means that shale gas extraction in France would be more expensive than in other countries, particularly the USA which is the world model on shale gas extraction. On top of this, France doesn’t have the infrastructure in place, has a much tougher regulatory environment and a less developed system for gas transportation.

FRANCE 24: But if France refuses to sanction even propane fracking, is it not denying itself a means to boost competitiveness?

Porcher: If fracking has helped the USA’s competitiveness, that’s mostly down to the fact that the price of gas has dropped by two thirds in recent years. For fracking to add to France’s industrial competitiveness, the price would also have to drop dramatically, and there is no indication that this would happen. The European gas market does not work in the same way as the US market. We are much more rigid and gas prices are linked to petrol prices.

So if France hopes to boost competitiveness through the energy sector, it will only be able to do so through US-style gas “dumping”, and to achieve this you can’t go down the more expensive “clean fracking” route. In other words, you have to choose between protecting the environment and boosting the economy.

In my opinion, this talk about “clean fracking” using propane is nothing but a Trojan Horse, designed to make fracking seem more acceptable and even necessary for the country’s economic future. Even if Hollande promised in his election manifesto that there would be no fracking, Montebourg is doing everything in his power to put the debate back on the table, and to sow the seeds of popular support [According to a Qualit’EnR-Ifop poll published on January 29, only 24 percent of the French support the idea].

FRANCE 24: While fracking remains illegal in France, elsewhere in the EU, and particularly in the UK, it is seeing huge investment. How can France stop itself from falling behind?

Porcher: France and Bulgaria are the only countries in the world to have formally outlawed fracking. And we are not a big enough player to come up with a new method, namely propane fracking, while the rest of the world is using hydraulic fracking.

We should not launch ourselves blindly into a new method without the least idea of the environmental consequences. Instead, we can make ourselves useful and be a very real player in this sector by investing in proper research before we start drilling. France needs to know how, where and on what scale fracking operations could go ahead across the country. We need to know exactly what effects drilling will have on populations near the wells (health, drops in the value of property, etc). Much of this research has already been done in the USA, but it needs to take into account France’s much denser demographics.

France can certainly be a leading international player in non-conventional energy resources. There are many options. But to go blindly in to propane fracking is not one of them.

Date created : 2014-02-01

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