Shale backers sought her firing, former energy minister says

Former French Environment Minister Delphine Batho said her support for a ban on shale drilling and reducing dependence on nuclear power cost her her job.

“The battle crystallized notably on the question of shale gas and more discreetly on the reduction of nuclear in France,” Batho said at a press conference yesterday at the National Assembly in Paris. “These forces that I am talking about wanted my scalp.”

Batho, who held both the energy and environment portfolios, was fired by President Francois Hollande earlier this week after calling his 2014 spending plans “bad” because they cut her department’s funds by about 7 percent. She left at a critical time as the nation debates its future energy mix after Hollande pledged to lower the proportion of power France derives from nuclear energy, the highest in the world.

An energy law was to be formulated in the coming months and sent to parliament at the start of 2014. The stakes are high for Electricite de France SA, operator of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors, because it wants to extend the lives of its generators rather than have any of them shut down.

Socialist lawmaker Philippe Martin was named to replace Batho. He is a longtime critic of hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas, which is banned in France, and genetically modified organisms.

Remain Silent

Batho said she “never imagined for one minute” that her budget comments would lead to her being fired. “I won’t remain silent,” she said.
Batho said Philippe Crouzet, the chief executive officer of France’s Vallourec SA, had described her as a “disaster” and had commented on her likely departure before it was announced. In a statement late last night Crouzet denied he had ever “commented on the eventual departure of the minister.”

Vallourec makes pipes for the oil and gas industry, including in the U.S., where it operates in the shale industry.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on July 3 told parliament Batho’s comments on the budget posed a “political problem” that showed a lack of loyalty to the government. Environmental issues remain “at the heart” of Hollande’s policies, he said.

Batho’s departure is the second by a key cabinet member in Hollande’s government since Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned in March after admitting to holding an undeclared Swiss bank account. By dismissing Batho, Hollande signaled his determination to shrink spending and keep discipline within government ranks.

Hollande has pledged to lower the dependence on nuclear energy to 50 percent of total output by around 2025 from the current 75 percent.
The test of whether Hollande will keep to his campaign promise will be whether EDF’s oldest reactor at Fessenheim is shut in spite of resistance from the utility, Batho said.