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August 9, 2017updated 10 Nov 2017 2:50pm

La Guillotine falls on French oil exploration

The new French environment minister dropped a bombshell in June by announcing measures to end the development of shale oil and gas in France and its overseas territories. Does the proposal go far enough, can it be implemented and what does it say about the new French President, Emmanuel Macron? Patrick Kingsland asks Juliette Renaud, campaigner with Friends of the Earth France.

By Patrick Kingsland

Just a few minutes after US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, new French President, Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter to express his feelings. “Make our planet great again,” he said in a pithy comment that quickly went viral around the world.

Not long after, the fresh-faced “radical centrist” – whose party En Marche! was only established last year – appeared on video beside climate change campaigner and action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Enjoying a wave of popularity at Trump’s expense, he pledged once again to “make the planet great again”.

What does Macron’s election win mean for the environment?

For most analysts it was a shrewd move by Macron. “It showed a self-confidence, even a form of insolence,” Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute for International Relations, commented in the Guardian. “In terms of foreign relations, the early stages of Macron’s presidency have undeniably been a success.”

But others were less convinced, at least by the substance of Macron’s remarks. While progressive on certain issues, climate change and the environment barely featured in Macron’s election campaign, with the economy, immigration and terrorism all taking centre stage.

“During the campaign he was one of the least ecological candidates,” says Juliette Renaud, campaigner with Friends of the Earth France. “When he was minister of economy he also showed that he didn’t really care about the environment.”

Banning oil and gas licences

To his supporters Macron’s recent decision to stop granting new oil and gas exploration licences was a clear sign that he is serious about tackling environmental issues.

In France, where the main reserves are unconventional, the decision is likely to affect shale gas, shale oil and coalbed methane, while in France’s overseas territories, it will affect various offshore projects in places such as Guiana.

But while Renaud says “the announcement goes in the right direction”, she believes it should go further.

“We have more than 130 exploration license demands currently awaiting a response from the government and it is not clear whether they will be rejected,” she says. “We also have more than 50 licenses that are already active but where most of the companies are not doing anything because of the ban on fracking in 2011.

“We have more than 130 exploration license demands currently awaiting a response from the government and it is not clear whether they will be rejected.”

“I’m not arguing that we should touch the permits that already exist because we will have a lot of trials against the state and we don’t have the means to face that. But if Macron doesn’t do anything about the current license demands or the ones awaiting renewal, this proposal won’t have much of an effect.”

To introduce the new law Renaud says Macron will also need to change the country’s complex mining code, something previous administrations have promised but failed to deliver.

“Things were announced by the government of Sarkozy in 2011 and then by Francois Hollande,” she says. “There was a preliminary proposal for a law but it was never publically released and discussed in parliament. At the very end of the last mandate parliament said ‘okay, the government hasn’t done anything so we will present a draft law to reform the mining code’. This draft law was discussed in parliament in January but as the mandate was finishing it didn’t go to the Senate.”

Withstanding industry pressure

Part of the problem, says Renaud, is corporate lobbying. “The oil industry is very powerful in France,” she says. “In the past, the first ecology minister of Hollande, Nicole Bricq, was sacked after just one month because she tried to oppose the licensing of an oil permit to Shell.

“We also had a ban on fracking in 2011, which was not very well defined and left the door open for exploitation. There was pressure from the industry to exclude coalbed methane from the definition of unconventional oil, for example. Why? Because today we have some exploration in the north of France. There was no scientific basis to exclude this kind of unconventional hydrocarbon from the definition but it was omitted because of pressure from companies.”

The oil industry’s reaction to the recent exploration ban has certainly not been positive. Writing in the French newspaper The Echoes, Olivier Appert, president at the French Energy Council described the move as a “purely symbolic decision,” which will further damage the country’s balance of trade deficit without reducing actual consumption of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Olivier Appert, president at the French Energy Council described the move as a “purely symbolic decision,”.”

Speaking to the French industry title, Marc Feugère, a consultant for oil exploration companies obtaining permits, added that “there are no environmental reasons to stop the oil exploration activity in France. It has a very small ecological footprint, occupying very little land, not more than one hectare, for the exploration phase, and even less for exploitation.”

“Oil is a strategic resource that we still need,” Feugère continued. “Without oil, many sectors, starting with transport, national defence, and agriculture, are totally blocked. Just think about the fuel strikes in May 2016, and the queues caused at service stations in Brittany and Ile-de-France!”

Whether Macron is swayed by industry opinion remains to be seen. Just a few weeks into his premiership, the leader is already finding some of his commitments tested, however.

“We are seeing some worrying things such as the tax on financial transactions,” says Renaud. “The president promised he would support this tax at the European level and has now gone back on that promise. On other issues the Minister of Ecology Nicolas Hulot has also withdrawn from his original positions.”

The selection of Hulot – a popular environmental activist – has been viewed as positive but other appointments have also raised eyebrows.

“Macron’s Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, is from Areva, which is a big nuclear company,” says Renaud. “And Philippe’s Chief of Staff, Benoît Ribadeau-Dumas, also has a background in the oil and gas industry.”

What this means is again too early to tell. But while Macron certainly appears to be enjoying his time in the limelight as the saviour of European liberalism, in the end, Renaud says, actions speak louder than words. “For now there is a lot of talking,” she says. “Ultimately it is about seeing concrete change.”

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