Following two years of litigation, France’s Constitutional Council—the highest court in France—upheld the country’s ban on hydraulic fracturing, ruling that the 2011 law “conforms to the constitution” and is not “disproportionate” to its intended effect. The constitutional challenge was brought by Schuepbach Energy LLC, a Dallas-based energy firm, after the newly-enacted ban stripped the company of two exploration permits previously granted by the French government.
The ruling came as a disappointment to many in the energy industry who had hoped to take advantage of France’s abundant shale plays. France and Poland have the most potential for recoverable shale gas in Europe, according to the International Energy Agency. The United States Energy Information Administration estimates that five trillion cubic meters of shale gas—enough to support France’s gas consumption for approximately 90 years— are housed beneath the Paris basin and the Rhône valley.
But energy companies will have to find another way to tap into France’s potentially vast reserves. As French President François Hollande noted, the law “only prohibits recovering shale gas by hydraulic fracturing; it does not prevent research on other techniques.” President Hollande supported the ban passed under his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, even as France attempts to reduce its reliance on carbon emissions and nuclear power.
With the high court’s ruling, France joins Bulgaria as the only European countries to ban hydraulic fracturing entirely. But fracturing has met resistance in other countries as well, including Great Britain. While Europe and the United States depend on natural gas for a similar portion of their energy needs—24 percent and 28 percent, respectively—that gap widens considerably for gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing, which accounts for 15 percent of American consumption but only 0.1 percent of consumption in Europe.
And Europe’s progress toward increased use of hydraulic fracturing techniques has been slow. After rejecting a similar ban last November, the European Parliament—the legislative body for the European Union—voted last week to compel energy companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing to conduct extensive environmental audits based on human health, species and their habitats, land, water and climate. Prior legislation required such assessments only for projects extracting over 500,000 cubic meters of natural gas per day. But most European shale projects produce at a lower rate, prompting the change in the law. Meanwhile, industry advocates have lamented the new legislation as an additional obstacle to a new wave of economic development in the wake of the continent’s recent and persistent financial crises. Of course, delays in Europe likely means that there will be more financial resources available for the exploration and production of the shale plays in the United States.
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