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SHALE gas is about to return to the French government’s agenda as ministers gets ready for an environmental conference next month – which is expected to start with a clean slate. It is estimated that there are up to 5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas locked in the shale deposits deep underground below France.

The conference, on September 14 and 15, will be preceded by meetings with environmental campaigners, local politicians, businesses and consumer groups to discuss the themes of the transition to new energy sources and preserving biodiversity.

An adviser to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told Le Figaro “the idea is to say that shale gas exists,” to accept that it is not the shale gas that is the problem but the method of extracting it.

Plans to drill for shale gas in large areas of the south of France drew wide-scale protests last year and led to the Fillon government banning the only known extraction method, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, as its use of toxic chemicals under high pressure was feared to be a danger to water supplies.

However, Ecology Minister Delphine Batho is opposed to reopening the debate saying: “France made a choice which, looking at current technology, is fully justified.”

She was speaking after Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg said last week that the need to look at “France’s energy self-sufficiency” meant shale gas could not be ignored.

Some politicians have suggested that, with the government looking to introduce new taxes on oil companies and trying to keep gas prices down, there could be a “give and take” agreement in return for approval to restart shale gas exploration, if not exploitation through fracking.

It is thought that there could be 5,000 billion cubic metres of natural gas locked in the shale deposits deep underground below France – but without exploration wells even that is uncertain.

In the US, where shale gas is being extracted using fracking, the cost of gas has fallen spectacularly and the thought of similar could drive France to look again at its “reserves”.

The Connexion, 19 July 2012