France’s unsustainable hypocrisy on fracking will very likely, per inevitably, lead to the development of French shale gas with implications for New York.
There is a special wound on my heart marked Gaz de Schiste: French shale gas. Fortunately, and contemporaneously with the UK, which seems to be finally stirring, the debate will inevitably evolve in France. There is a particular French term “La Rentrée” which signifies not only the return to school, but to business and cultural life in general. It will be an especially political one this year in the primary campaigns to get candidates this year, and the first and second rounds of the Presidential Election in April and May.
I’m interested in the commercial aspects of the French shale question for France itself, but also for the natural gas industry advocacy campaign world-wide. Of all the outdated objections to shale, “France has banned shale gas” is the one that may be as impermanent as the others. There’s only two people of any consequence keeping the ban going. One is President Hollande and the other is Mme Royal, his former partner and mother to his children. For reasons totally unconnected with shale, it’s unlikely that either of them will re-enter in 2017. That will then help shale in France, the UK, New York State and everywhere else. Here’s hoping, here’s trying and heres’s waiting.
Earlier this year I wrote at Energy Post on the paradox of France banning hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, while at the same time imports to the Dunkerque LNG terminal by semi-state companies EdF and Engie were set to include US natural gas. As almost two thirds of US natural gas is already produced via hydraulic fracturing, it would be thus impossible to separate molecules into “good” gas or “bad” gas.
This was mischievous on my part, part of an attempt to get a 2016 debate started on the 2011 French law which shut down scientific debate on hydraulic fracturing. France’s fixation on shale technology today is like ordering everyone to only use iPhone 2s. It’s especially sad that a country founded on elemental scientific rationality sought to stop scientific debate. If France chooses to think they don’t need natural gas, that’s one thing, but to import 40 bcm (billion cubic metres) of gas for heat and industry while the lowest carbon and highest tax alternative lies beneath the benighted banlieues of Northern Paris, this entirely political choice moves from paradox through contradiction to hypocrisy with alarming speed.
Once I had prepared the earth for the debate, France’s Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal (pictured to right) picked up the spade and started digging the hole deeper. For a couple of weeks, Mme Royal, with admirable consistency, first professed shock and ignorance and then ordered a study be made over how France could reconcile banning shale gas with using it. That was then, and perhaps one day, we’ll get an answer. Perhaps it will just be forgotten as US LNG finally starts arriving in North West Europe markets this winter.
But what about oil? One catastrophic error in the shambles that is European hydraulic fracturing policy is to talk only about shale natural gas. It’s worth noting how in 2011 even the US debate rarely mentioned using the identical techniques of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas to produce oil. Although the first inklings that the techniques discovered in the Barnett Shale for gas in the 1990’s could be also be used for oil had started to go past conjecture to production as early as the attempts by EOG Resources and Continental Resources in the Eagle Ford and Bakken shales ten years or more ago, hydraulically fractured oil production only truly took off from 2011 onwards. The rest they say is history, and most especially the history of how the oil price collapsed as we saw the fallout from what the Economist called Sheiks versus Shale.
Thus France’s debate about shale may have shut down debate at a critical juncture. Not only have we seen shale gas production increase by several orders of magnitude as the size of the resource surprised even long-standing optimists such as myself, shale has emerged with little or no of the horror stories of contamination prevalent in the debate of the Gasland movie era, which was filmed in 2009 and televised in France in 2011.
The French shale debate was entirely one of politics and culture, even inserting itself into the story line of France’s most popular soap-opera Plus Belle La Vie. So much for the l’Académie des sciences opinion. A perfect storm of that rarity for France, all party support for the Loi Jacob (“Jacob Act”) led to a ban on hydraulic fracturing. Jean-Baptiste Colbert would be turning in his grave. The scientific opinion of a hipster with a banjo, Josh Fox, counts more in France these days apparently.
In the meantime, all the horrors predicted by the Royal/Fox alliance have resolutely refused to show up. Certainly there were errors in the early days of shale. Just as certainly as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently noted, 2015 was marked by gas production forty times higher than that in 2009, yet “DEP investigations into water contamination through methane migration, yielded no findings of wrongdoing by the gas industry last year.”
The Loi Jacob came about despite some half-hearted lobbying by the disorganized nascent French shale industry although it didn’t stop some later regrets from various quarters not only in the Socialist Party but even from former President Sarkozy who opened his primary campaign for next May’s Presidential election campaign admitting he had made a mistake over hydraulic fracturing.
Although Mme Royal has dug in her heels, no one in France has yet pointed out an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth about the campaign to ban not only the method but its product. But it is already too late. France has already imported oil that is almost certainly produced by hydraulic fracturing.
The US Energy Information Administration pointed out in May 2016 that a 51% majority of US oil was produced using hydraulic fracturing.
In August 2016, Resources for the Future noted in a paper on the economics of conventional versus unconventional oil and gas (p16): “Following the massive increase in unconventional drilling and collapse in gas prices, conventional gas wells have all but disappeared.”
The same holds broadly true for oil. We can leave it to the philosophers how the dominant method of production can still be described as “unconventional”, but the debate over whether or not France should import shale oil is now settled.
Until the shale boom, any idea that the US would export oil would have been politically, geologically and economically impossible. Now that North America produces more oil and gas than it imports US producers turned exporters after a minimum of political discussion. The EIA revealed not only the scale of US oil exports but that their actual destinations included France itself. France imported over 20 million barrels of US oil from December 2015 through May 2016, an amount that would have included at least 10 million barrels produced by the feared fracking method.
France does everything well, and especially in this case, hypocrisy. France imported far more oil than anyone else in Europe in the same period with the exception of over 50 million barrels that made it’s way to the Netherlands. The Netherlands is another example of a country that is happy to feel virtuous by not using hydraulic fracturing, but is happy to live with the contradictions of it. As Rotterdam is the number one oil trading hub of the world, US shale oil is certainly also present in the engines of German, Spanish, Irish, Scottish and New York automobile drivers, some of whom may well have bumper stickers reading “Criminalize Fracking” and think themselves blessed to live in communities not “blighted” by fracking.
In 1807, the British Empire banned the Atlantic slave trade and banned slavery entirely by 1837. Yet, the cotton mills of Lancashire were content to buy American cotton all through the 1840’s and 50’s and even financed Confederate blockade runners to keep their mills supplied during the American Civil War.
Today, countries (like France) ban GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) in food and almost everyone signs treaties to block imports produced by child labour. What is the difference between banning hydraulic fracturing to protect France and its citizens but being content to allegedly poison the rest of the planet and US shale communities? This is a moral question as well as a geological one.
The answer is that France, whichever party is in power post May 2017, must re-open the debate on shale. If that debate is founded on the twin French traditions of science and rationality, the outcome will certainly mean that the ban must fall.
According to many geologists, American, French, British and German, the Paris Basin holds more shale oil than anywhere in Europe. When I attended COP 21 in Paris last December I was shocked to see how desolate the suburbs surrounding the conference site at Le Bourget were. The twin technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing make the northern suburbs of Paris, even the former airport at Le Bourget itself, perfect locations for low impact, lower carbon and of course, high tax French shale gas and oil.
Or, France has a choice. One is that 20 million barrels at a rough cost of $45 a barrel meant the good, if not always wisely led people of France, sent € 800 million to help “pollute” Texas and North Dakota. The other choice is to claim the €500 million of tax revenue from shale gas produced in France.
After next May, if not before, France should decide if they can afford, morally or otherwise, that choice.