Protesters step up shale gas pressure

Protesters against plans to drill for shale gas and oil in France are getting set for a mass demonstration

30 April 2011

PROTESTERS against plans to drill for shale gas and oil in France are getting set for a mass demonstration on May 10 as MPs gather to debate a ban on the proposals.

The vote comes against the background of rising fuel price, approaching €2 per litre – and, since the Fukushima disaster, growing opposition to nuclear power, which provides nearly 80% of France’s energy.

Protests against the unconventional drilling methods that have caused environmental damage in the US and threaten groundwater supplies have seen fast government footwork, as Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and then Prime Minister François Fillon announced halts to drilling permits.

Former Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, who signed the exploration permits, is also now pushing for a ban.

However complicating matters is a provisional report by government advisers for industry and the environment, which has recommended pursuing research and doing experimental drilling. France may be the European country with the most shale gas, it says, and, while the industry would need tight regulation, it is important to enable French operators to emerge in the field.

A final version is due at the end of the month - after the debate on the law. Energy Minister Eric Besson said that while today exploiting shale gas is too risky, France would not drop research, and it was possible as science improved, that resources could be exploited in two or three years’ time.

Shale gas and oil is in tight rock formations and is very difficult to recover from the deep wells so a method called hydraulic fracturing “fracking” was developed where a shock wave was set off at the bottom of the well to crack the rock and allowed gas to rise to the surface. Millions of litres of water plus sand and up to 200 chemicals are forced into the well under high pressure. In the US this has leaked into water supplies.

In the Oscar-nominated film Gasland it was shown that people could even set light to their tapwater.

Green Euro-MP José Bové has urged people to keep up the pressure or the government could give in to increasingly strident demands from oil firms eager to get at what may be 90 years worth of gas reserves.

“People should be in front of the parliament to make sure the MPs keep their promises,” he said.

Addressing 8,000 protestors in Nant in the Aveyron, he said any sign of weakening would be grabbed as an excuse to allow drilling to go ahead.

He added that parliament must reform the 1956 Code Minier which regulates exploration underground but does not provide for proper safeguards or public consultation and allows drilling within 50m of homes.

Mr Bové shared the platform with nearly 50 politicians, including the presidents of Aveyron and Hérault departmental councils, to protest against permission for shale gas exploration across the south.

There were 5,000 protesters, including many expats, at Cahors (Lot) and other demonstrations in UMP general secretary Jean-François Copé’s town Meaux (Seine-et-Marne), at Donzères (Drôme stronghold of energy minister Eric Besson) and at Rousson (Gard).

Apart from the dangers to water, protesters fear the prospect of hundreds of lorryloads of soil and water going past their doors. Each 50m floodlit drill site will need to dispose of 1,500 tonnes of soil and each well will need several million litres of water to force the gas out.

Mr Fillon has left the door open for exploration by ordering a scientific inquiry into ways of exploiting the gas without environmental damage.

His move came after Total boss Christophe de Margerie denounced the shale gas campaign as “outrageous” adding: “How can we take a decision without knowing if there are shale gas reserves underground?” In the US, Shell Oil president Marvin Odum admitted problems with shale gas operations and called for strong regulation of fracking and more transparency in the industry.

He said, when well managed, hydraulic fracturing had advantages far outweighing any harm. US oil firm Toreador Resources, behind plans to drill in the Paris basin, said it was “unthinkable” that drilling would not go ahead.

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