The French paradox on shale

Is it paradox or even hypocrisy? The French government bans liquefied natural gas (LNG) shale as an example to the world, but imports and makes money on it at the same time. Is there something like a French blind spot about shale? Nick Grealy takes a look.

A shale oil mine in northern Estonia.

France has a long history in oil. (Photo by Wilson44691, modified, CC0 1.0)

At the end of January during a demonstration in France against shale gas, one of the key slogans was “Ni ici, ni ailleurs. Ni aujourd’hui, ni demain”.

Like most things, it sounds better in French, but the translation is simple enough that the message reverberates not only around Europe but to Algeria, Quebec and even among shale opponents in the US:  Not here, not anywhere. Not today, not tomorrow.

The total lack of any nuance in the French shale debate poisons the shale debate worldwide. How many times do we hear in Lancashire or New York State or even in Denton Texas that France has banned shale gas so why can’t we follow their example. Before antis dismiss me as right wing Euro-sceptic French basher, let me out myself as would be left wing Bernie Sanders (except shale) voter in the US and a Remain and Sadiq Khan for Mayor voter in London. I’m also a Francophile and French speaker who has been consistently mystified by the French blind spot about shale.

A famous saying in France from the 1970’s was “We don’t have oil, but we do have ideas”. Back then, that led to a sudden nuclearisation of the French power system, which replaced oil with nuclear. French power generation was thus almost 100% decarbonised via nuclear and hydro even before renewables entered the picture. French nuclear exports help Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain accelerate their renewable uptake.

France, more than anything is a country built on rationality. This is the country of Descartes after all, but is also one founded on great scientists like Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, Ampere in electricity, the Curies, etc etc.  But bizarrely, paradoxically, and to Anglo-Saxon eyes, hypocritically, France today has oil but it no longer possesses ideas.

France has a  long history in oil. Total, Schlumberger and Technip are only three huge companies who signify how ideas about energy don’t need to come from Texas or the UK or Russia where resources may actually be located.

I won’t go too much into France’s problem with fracking. It’s too depressing and I’ve written extensively about it over the years here. The simple answer is that France’s politics combined in 2011 to produce a situation where all political parties suddenly found themselves aligned against shale.

Despite Sarkozy making a turn on shale as soon as he started his 2017 election campaign, and several important figures in the ruling Socialist Party also in favour of shale, President Hollande and Ségolène Royal have consistently buried anything positive in the national debate.

We’re now at a strange conjunction. A few months ago a senior French (Socialist) politician I won’t name told me something very telling: “In English, France’s shale policy sounds like hypocrisy. In French, we call it a paradox”.

It’s only 13 months to the next Presidential Election. Until the Paris terror attacks, President Hollande was considered unlikely to run thanks to his failure on employment. The attack changed that and he may run again empowered by the terror issue. But in the interim, the government is threatening to enshrine a ban of even research into fracking in the new mining law that is only a few months away. Ségolène Royal sounds increasingly like Josh Fox without the banjo and beard when she describes shale as poisoning the water and completely unacceptable.

So in some ways, France shale sounds as if it’s completely buried. Yet, here lies a paradox. Or is it hypocrisy?

Engie SA agreed to buy LNG  from Cheniere Energy Inc., increasing the importance of France as a market for U.S. fuel.

The Houston-based company will ship as many as 12 LNG cargoes a year to France’s Montoir-de-Bretagne regasification terminal under a five-year contract, Engie said Wednesday in a statement. The deliveries, on an ex-ship basis, will start in 2018 at prices linked to northern European markets, Engie said. The LNG can alternatively be shipped to other European terminals.

U.S. LNG will help diversify the origin of gas consumed in Europe, according to Engie. A third of European gas demand is met by Russian gas delivered by pipeline from Siberian fields. Norway, domestic production and LNG from existing suppliers such as Qatar and Algeria account for the rest.

“Importing U.S. LNG will participate to strengthen the security of supply of Europe,” Pierre Chareyre, Engie executive vice president in charge of global gas and LNG, said in the statement.

If you don’t like that paradox, where Engie, the former Gaz de France in which the state still has a large share and a seat on the board is importing US shale LNG, there is another. EDF is 75% owned by the government which on one hand thinks shale is poisonous, yet is even more invested in shale LNG:

U.S. LNG exporter Cheniere Energy announced on Monday a deal to sell up to 24 cargoes to French energy giant EDF from 2017 through 2018.

The exact number of cargoes firmly committed to EDF could not be confirmed, although some sources believed only a handful were fixed to arrive at EDF’s newly built import terminal at Dunkirk in France.

Let’s get this straight: Shale gas is so damaging a technique that production of it must be banned in France, as an example to the world. Yet, it’s fine for it to be consumed in France. Does something stink here? This is like banning slavery in the 1840’s but keeping on buying US cotton and Brazilian sugar. It’s like banning sweatshops but importing cheap clothes. It’s no different from banning GMO food and then eating it. To Ségolène Royal it’s an illegal substance yet one the government profits from. What next? Bring back the opium trade?

If France’s virulent anti shale opponents can demonstrate against shale in deepest France they should demonstrate against it in their space heating, hot water taps and at restaurant kitchens. They probably won’t. After all, with so many of them retired in the country, and EDF and Engie making up so much of their pensions, they may decide that while they don’t want shale gas near them, they can perform the necessary philosophical contortions that allow it to intrude into their wallet.

The French oil industry shouldn’t let the new mining code through Parliament without making the EDF/Engie shale paradox key to the debate. They do have oil: the UK’s Weald Shale extends all the way to Paris.

France has to come to terms with a new paradox where they have both shale and ideas. Unfortunately when ideas are wrong-headed and out of date, legislating a ban on shale is something the French, and especially the jobless among them, will have to live with.

The contortions that some will tie themselves into to explain away the policy may be entertaining, but they need to be highlighted. I don’t have enough money to resolve the omnishambles that is UK shale policy. The French will have to work it out for themselves. Bonne chance!

This article by Nick Grealy (@ReImagineGas) was first published on No Hot Air and is republished with permission.


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  1. S. Herb says

    I have trouble getting excited about this, given the current gas surplus on the planet. Maybe someone should develop some plausible geothermal test projects and set the drillers to work, to get some more data points on how the economics really work out.

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