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France Should Ban Shale Exploration on Risks, Minister Says

The French government will back a proposed ban on a technique used for the exploration and production of natural gas and oil found in shale because of threats to the environment.

“I’m against hydraulic fracturing. We have seen the results in the U.S.,” French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said today on RMC radio. “There are risks for the water tables and these are risks we don’t want to take.”

Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals injected under high pressure to break dense rock to release oil and gas trapped within. Lawmakers today will begin debating a bill that would cancel exploration permits already granted to energy companies including Total SA and Toreador Resources Corp. if they plan to use the technique, according to a draft of the text.

“It was an error,” Kosciusko-Morizet said of the permits given last year. “These never should have been granted. An environmental evaluation should have been done before giving out the permits and not after.”

The ban, which was proposed by ruling UMP party lawmakers, comes after months of protests across France against shale drilling spearheaded by green groups and politicians who say it could cause environmental damage. Explorers for shale gas and oil in France had already started drilling in some cases or were preparing to begin on permits near Paris and in the south before the government halted work temporarily in February.

‘We Don’t Want It’

The minister called for an overhaul of the country’s mining code that details rules for oil and gas exploration and production for France, which produces less than 1 percent of domestic needs mostly from around Paris and the southwest.

Hydraulic fracturing, which has also met resistance in the U.S., “is a technology that we haven’t totally mastered,” she said. “There is only one technology that can be used today to produce shale gas and that’s hydraulic fracturing and we don’t want it.”

Allowing the technique to be used in France would violate the principles of “precaution and prevention” enshrined in the country’s Environmental Charter, according to the proposed law sponsored by UMP deputy Christian Jacob.

Deputies at the National Assembly are scheduled to start debating the bill at midnight Paris time and vote on a final version tomorrow before it moves to the Senate.

The deputies will have more than 40 amendments to consider including one that would allow hydraulic fracturing for research purposes by state-controlled entities and another that would ban France-based companies from using hydraulic fracturing outside the country or deepwater drilling offshore French Guiana.

Industrial Potential

“No one knows for sure whether shale potential is promising enough to move toward industrial production,” the French oil companies association Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres said last week in a statement. “Industry is simply asking to do enough research to be able to precisely gauge the situation.”

The CGT union, which represents the most workers at French energy companies, said exploration work under government control should be allowed in order to measure reserves. “Production of shale oil and gas using current available technology isn’t acceptable anywhere,” it said last week.

Toreador last quarter planned to drill the first of three wells at the Chateau Thierry permit outside Paris to explore for shale oil, while Vermilion Energy Inc. was planning to fracture shale in three existing wells after exploration last year, the government and companies have said.

Total holds the southern French Montelimar permit for shale gas while GDF Suez SA has had talks with Schuepbach Energy LLC on taking a stake in two permits the company holds in southern France to explore for unconventional gas.

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