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Pollution key to shale gas debate

As minister Arnaud Montebourg asks President Hollande to rethink his stand on 'fracking' we look at the shale gas debate

ALTHOUGH no exploration wells have been drilled to confirm it, business leaders, at least one leading minister and global energy companies say that there are shale gas reserves locked in rock under the south and east of France that could power the country for 30 years, reduce its energy bill and make industry competitive again.

However, the only known technique for getting shale gas out of the rock is hydraulic fracturing, which forces large quantities of water, sand and chemicals down the well where it cracks the rock open, letting gas back up the well.

Environmentalists say these cracks would eventually reach and contaminate vital aquifers – but the gas industry says aquifers are at low levels underground and shale gas is miles deeper. Green groups also say that the need for thousands of wells across France would ruin peaceful countryside.

Protests swept France when the first drilling permits were awarded and the Sarkozy government banned hydraulic fracturing in 2011 and halted the permits.

After President Hollande was elected he said hydraulic fracturing would not be allowed but left the door open for gas companies to come up with new techniques. And although Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg suggested France develop “ecological” techniques through a state-owned company, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told him shale gas was not part of future energy policy.

However, Socialist MP Christian Bataille, who co-authored a parliamentary report saying hydraulic fracturing was safe, suggested France could not afford to leave shale gas alone as it could help cut oil imports which made up 85% of its trade deficit.

Connexion talked to both sides of the shale gas debate to answer the question: Can France get cheap power without environmental damage?

We speak to Shale Gas Europe, the umbrella group which represents companies such as Total, Halliburton, Chevron and Cuadrilla in Europe, with UK Onshore Operators Group spokesman Ken Cronin giving the view from Britain, where exploration and exploitation has started

What is the shale gas debate about?
The debate is about energy security, energy pricing and the energy future. In Europe it has been lacking a serious technical element so far and has been dominated more by myths than facts.

In June 2012 the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK concluded that shale gas development’s health, safety and environmental risks were known and could be effectively managed using the latest technology and applying best industry practices.

In addition, Europe is still in an exploration phase – trying to assess the potential of whatever shale gas resources exist.

America says shale gas has created thousands of jobs and
cut gas prices – will it do the same in France?
We know it will not be a boom like the US because US and EU markets (including France) are different: production costs, population density and environmental frameworks are not the same. Neither the scale nor the type of development will be similar in Europe.

It will not be a panacea but natural gas extraction from shale could:

* Support Europe’s reindustrialisation, especially energy-intensive industries such as steel, chemicals or car manufacturers by providing additional resources and more competitive energy prices.
* Boost job creation: A recent report by the Institute of Directors said shale gas development could create as many as 74,000 direct and indirect jobs in the UK for the next 25 years.
* Attract investments and increase tax revenues for central and local governments
* Replace a dwindling supply of conventional energy – thus helping to diversify our sources of energy and enhancing our energy security by stabilising the need for imports – and contribute to a less carbon-intensive energy economy.

At present, the only known way to get the gas out of the rock
is hydraulic fracturing, which was banned in France as unsafe. Can it be
made safe and, if so, where will the water come from?
Hydraulic fracturing is a proven and safe technique and the extraction of shale gas has been rigorously monitored and evaluated for years, both in Europe and internationally.

Hydraulic fracturing technology has been used in Europe for decades and at least 45 times in France since the 1980s without a problem.
In the UK, hydraulic fracturing has been used in more than 200 wells since the 1970s with no issues. The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling started in the 1980s and decades of refining the process has made it possible to successfully and safely produce shale gas.

Environmental laws in the UK are very tight on how the well is drilled and how the casing seals it off from surrounding rock to ensure water is not contaminated. France will be the same.

On water, a well uses up to 30,000m3 and the European Parliament uses 250,000m3 a year. The Institute of Directors said the industry would use just 0.05% of the UK’s water supply in any one year and water use was lower than for other energy generating sources.

What effect will drilling operations have on property prices?
No indication of any effect. Currently the UK has about 140-150 operating sites for onshore oil and gas, many in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and there is no indication whatsoever over the past 30-40-50 years of any issue of house prices or insurance.

Opponents of shale gas come from both the environmental and business lobbies. We speak to Meike Fink of Réseau Action Climat-France and Dr Thomas Porcher, a lecturer in natural resources at ESG-Management School.

What is the shale gas debate about?
MF – The debate is on two levels: the technology of hydraulic fracturing and its environmental impact and the question of whether we should be starting to use a new fossil fuel when global temperatures are already starting to rise.

TP – For me, this is not a real debate as it starts from the point that the case for shale gas is already made – that is not so.

America says shale gas has created thousands of jobs and cut gas prices – will it do the same in France?
MF – This simply cannot happen in Europe: we have different land rights, higher population density so we cannot have the same number of wells, we do not have enough drilling equipment to make it work and the gas market is totally different and prices will not fall.

TP – In Europe, the gas market is more rigid than the US and prices will not fall.

The US has a “spot” price market but European countries are tied into long-term supply contracts as more than 60% of natural gas is imported. In addition, 90% comes from Russia on take-or-pay contracts: we pay even if we do not use the gas. Only massive shale gas production will reduce prices and that means thousands of wells.

A US study showed that production of $1million worth of gas will create only two jobs – and jobs in the exploration phase are very short-term.

France could create more jobs by investing in improving the energy efficiency of houses.

One other thing on jobs, and something that is never mentioned, is that in France the shale gas wells would be in tourist zones like the Gard, Ardeche, south of France and you would have to calculate the substitution of jobs that would be created through shale gas and the jobs lost because the areas were no longer attractive for tourism because of the long lines of lorries, the damaged countryside etc.

At present, the only known way to get the gas out of the rock is hydraulic fracturing, which was banned in France as unsafe. Can it be made safe and, if so, where will the water come from?

MF – Hydraulic fracturing technology is completely unacceptable because of the environmental and health risks involved in its use.

They can improve water treatment and work to avoid contamination of aquifers but there are other risks for the people living near drilling sites.

The European Commission has just ruled that all such projects would be subject to local consultations before the project starts. They want medicals for people in the area both before and after the work takes place.

European politicians know that there is a real problem with the technology as they say there are problems of surface and ground water contamination, air and noise emissions plus the impact from traffic.

TP – In Europe we are told that hydraulic fracturing is improved and is now safe but that is not what we are hearing from the US. A Colorado University study shows that in the zone of around half a mile of a drilling site there is an increased risk of cancer or other sickness from fine particulates etc. Duke University says that a Pennsylvania well has leaked gas into an aquifer. So there are still suspicions.

What effect will drilling operations have on property prices?
An American study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that in an area of 2000m round a well properties lost 24% of their value – and that is in the US where the property density is nothing like it is in France.

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