Pass the Foie Gras! France Starts Fracking, Calls it Stimulation

MDN has covered the on-again, off-again attitude in France about fracking. As we previously reported, it seemed the French had left the door open to fracking as long as it doesn’t use water as the main ingredient, and as long as you don’t actually call it "fracking" (see France’s Fracking Ban Remains…Peut-être). Bloomberg reports France is moving forward with a program to retrieve geothermal heat by "stimulating" rock—forcing water with chemicals under pressure deep underground. Sound familiar?

The only thing that’s different between what France is doing and what happens in the U.S. is the object of the fuel they’re retrieving. It’s geothermal in France, natural gas or oil in the U.S. The process to retrieve it is virtually the same. But the French refuse to call it what it is: hydraulic (water-based) fracturing—i.e. fracking. Oh well, c’est la vie…

It’s an existential question in France: When is fracking not fracking?

The country is pushing ahead with plans to harness geothermal energy from smoldering rock deep in the earth’s crust using drilling methods the oil industry says are like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which France outlawed in 2011.

Environment Minister Delphine Batho awarded two geothermal exploration licenses in February and said 18 more are in review. Some will permeate rock using a process called “stimulation” that blasts acid and water into fissures to release volcanic heat. That may be seen as similar to how U.S. explorers use chemical cocktails to fracture fossil fuels from shale rock.

France’s Socialist-led government grew enthusiastic about generating power from underground heat reservoirs as President Francois Hollande pledged to lower dependence on atomic power. The country banned fracking for its “serious health and environmental risks,” and canceled shale exploration licenses held by Total SA (FP), its biggest oil company, and U.S.-based Schuepbach Energy LLC. The French oil-industry lobby disagrees.

“Granting geothermal exploration permits is creating a double standard,” said Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, the group that’s pushing for a review of French shale energy restrictions. “The drilling methods are similar to fracking.”

Yesterday Pierre-Marie Abadie, who heads the energy division in the ministry, told an oil conference in Paris that geothermal fracking “would continue to be allowed. The law hasn’t banned it.”

Stimulating Rock

At the heart of the dispute is whether French government authorization for the “stimulation” of rock fissures with water and acid to access geothermal heat is comparable to oil and gas fracking, in which shale is shattered using high- pressure water, sand and chemicals to release hydrocarbons.

France “is fracking for geothermal,” Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said at the conference. She called on France to review its stance on fracking in light of its “high import bills” for natural gas.

French geothermal permits granted so far are in the Massif Central mountains to Electerre de France SAS, a company backed by investor Charles Beigbeder, and in the Pyrenees to Groupe Fonroche Energie, which installs solar panels.

French geothermal backers say drilling methods aren’t the same as for shale energy.

Geothermal Backers

The projects “won’t require fracking,” Elsa Demangeon, project manager at the renewable energy lobby Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables, said by telephone. “Some rock stimulation may be needed at the start but this is to reopen existing fissures.”

She acknowledged projects are being approved despite a current “legal void” on the difference.

The government said methods have evolved for tapping geothermal energy, which is based on the fact that the earth’s temperature increases with depth to reach thousands of degrees Celsius at the core.

“Hydraulic fracturing was used in the past but it’s not anymore,” Batho said in an interview when asked about the geothermal permits she has awarded. “These projects will make use of existing fissures.”*

    You can argue all day that thing walking and quacking in front of you is not a canard—but it is. Denying it doesn’t make it not a canard. You can possibly argue that what the French are doing uses "less fracking" than traditional oil and gas fracking—but it’s still fracking and the French are using water and chemicals to do it.

    Regardless of what it’s called, it’s time to celebrate fracking in France. Foie gras and merlot, anyone?

      *Bloomberg (Apr 5, 2013) – Le Fracking for Geothermal Heat Drawing Ire of French Oil //