Saturday, 14 May 2011

A Question of Trust

It is two days since the National Assembly voted to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and gas. It is generally accepted that the Senate will support the bill on June 1st and that it will go into law. A massive public outcry forced the government to do a u-turn and stop the almighty oil and gas industry in its tracks. The air should be rent with the sounds of celebration. There should be great satisfaction among the protesters for a job well done.  But all we hear are angry outbursts and claims of betrayal and skulduggery from the individuals and organisations involved in the protest. Why is this? 

It seems there are three reasons. Firstly, the original bill would have rescinded the permits already granted to the gas companies. At the last minute this provision was removed, leaving the possibility of the gas companies retaining their permits and, we must presume, finding some way to exploit them.

Secondly, the bill only bans hydraulic fracturing of the shale. The reason for this being that parliament's principal concern was the use and contamination of large quantities of water. In effect they have prohibited the use of hydraulic fracturing fluid. But they have not defined hydraulic. The root of the word is the latin for water but is generally used to include any fluid. Fluids include all liquids and gases and the only alternatives to water based fracking appear to be foam and gas fracturing. Foam and gas are both fluids so they should also be banned, but this is not explicitly stated in the bill. This ban on a single method of breaking up the shale leaves  the way open for all sorts of new technologies to emerge which the gas companies will swear do not involve hydraulic fracturing.

Thirdly, many of the protesters are also taking a longer term view of energy use. This new source of hydrocarbon-based fuel will take the pressure off the drive to find alternatives to oil which is generally accepted to be on the decline, and coal which is just plain filthy. Until recently it was accepted that the main alternatives were nuclear and a range of renewable sources such as solar, wind, water and geothermal power. Shale gas will simply delay the development of these alternatives and pump more carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. Nearly two hundred states signed the Kyoto agreement to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. The pathetic failure to achieve the targets has been disguised by massaging the figures - and it is this sort of disingenuous behaviour which should make us wary of the governments intentions for shale gas in France.

The bill has given the gas companies two months to describe how they will extract the gas. If it involves hydraulic fracturing their permits will be rescinded. If they do not say they will use hydraulic fracturing they will retain their permits. One thing is guaranteed, there will be no proposals which say they will use hydraulic fracturing. As the overwhelming opinion of industry insiders is that hydraulic fracturing is the only economically viable way of getting the gas out of the shale, this bill should be the equivalent of a complete ban on the exploitation of shale gas in France.

So now it is a question of trust. The French government may be prepared to review the gas companies proposals honestly and reject those that will involve hydraulic fracturing regardless of what they call it. But hardly anyone believes this is the case.

The government have failed to convince us that they will really ban fracturing. The wording of the bill suggests that they will allow it to proceed if the gas companies use the right words. If they want to avoid another public outcry in the run up to the 2012 Presidential election, they would be well advised to prove that they can be trusted - and soon.

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