French drillers call for shale experiments to calm debate

France should carry out experimental drilling for shale oil and natural gas, which the country’s anti-fracking law would allow even though the government has so far resisted, an energy lobby said.

“We’re hoping this tiny little door won’t be closed,” Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of Paris-based Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres or UFIP, said in a telephone interview. “This could help get past the terrible controversy that has developed on shale in France.”

French energy companies including Total SA (FP) are preparing arguments through UFIP in favor of home-grown research into hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process used to release the fuel from shale rock, ahead of a Sept. 14-15 environment conference organized by the government. France banned fracking on concern the process, which involves blasting rock with water, sand and chemicals, harms the environment.

Schilansky as well as the Paris daily Le Figaro, citing an unidentified participant, said a shale-related commission may be created in an announcement at this week’s conference. UFIP is pushing for the creation by the government of a publicly controlled commission to oversee shale experiments.

French parliament passed legislation last year outlawing the process over concerns it pollutes drinking water, effectively halting plans by Total and other companies to explore for shale gas in southern France. Fracking is widely used in the U.S., including by Total, to produce gas.

Shale Future?

Debate over the future of shale energy in France has resurfaced since the May election of Socialist President Francois Hollande. Hollande is scheduled to open the conference.

Environment Minister Delphine Batho and Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg have made comments on shale prospects that are contradictory, leaving the industry and anti-fracking groups thinking the ban may be softened.

While Batho has said the fracking ban will stand, Montebourg said the topic should be debated. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, scheduled to close the conference, said France must put all aspects of the shale debate “on the table.”

Batho today “categorically denied” the door would be opened to shale exploration experiments, the AFP news agency reported, citing the minister.

“I can understand it’s tempting to develop shale energy,” Nicolas Hulot, an environmental activist who favors a shale moratorium, said on RTL radio. “I would be very surprised if there is a complete about-turn” in policy.

Poland and France are the countries in Europe with the biggest potentially recoverable reserves of shale gas, according to the International Energy Agency.