France: The Potential for a Europe-Wide Anti-Fracking Movement

12 May 2011


Pressure from environmental and anti-globalization movements has led the French government to ban the drilling technique to extract shale natural gas called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” As with the anti-genetically modified organism movement in the 1990s, the French-based anti-fracking movement could spread across Europe, affecting regulations at the EU level. This would work out favorably for Russia, an energy exporter that has already been portraying fracking as an environmentally detrimental process.


The French Parliament on May 11 voted in favor of a ban against a drilling technique for extracting shale natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” The bill will now go before a Senate vote. The crowd that gathered outside the Parliament before the vote included Green Party presidential hopefuls Eva Joly and Nicolas Hulot. Fracking has become a politically charged issue ahead of the French presidential elections (set for April 22, 2012, with a second round set for May 6, 2012). French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement, drafted the anti-fracking bill.

A fracking ban in France is not significant for the country’s future energy supply, since France relies overwhelmingly on nuclear power — 74 percent of France’s electricity was derived from nuclear power in 2010 — and has consciously avoided natural gas since the 1970s as a source of energy. A number of European countries, particularly Poland, still see fracking as a way to gain energy independence and minimize reliance on Russian natural gas.

However, French environmentalist and anti-globalization groups’ adopting the anti-fracking cause is bad news for the drilling technique in Europe. French environmentalist groups previously have opposed technological advances at home and then championed the cause on a pan-European level.

The Debate over Fracking

Fracking is seen as a potential panacea to Europe’s dependence on Russia and North Africa for energy supplies. In light of the Fukushima nuclear accident, it is also seen as a way for the Continent to tap its own difficult-to-access sources of natural gas and therefore eschew the increasingly unpopular option of adopting nuclear power en masse.

Despite the geological potential, there are several hurdles to the adoption of fracking in Europe, not the least of which is that most European countries’ energy sectors are dominated by a single national champion firm. In the United States, smaller energy companies willing to take risks adopted the fracking technique to get to deposits in fields otherwise considered to be depleted or highly irregular in terms of their geological characteristics. These smaller firms had the financial incentive to hang onto their plots, sometimes for decades, trying successions of innovative techniques to extract hydrocarbons. Energy majors, especially those working in foreign environments, do not always have the time and financial incentives to concentrate on such ventures.

Nonetheless, because of Europe’s dependence on foreign energy sources — among them Russia and North Africa, which are geopolitically undesirable, albeit for different reasons — U.S. energy companies have sought out European fracking opportunities. Poland, where the strategic negatives of Russian natural gas exports are most deeply felt, has been the most receptive, and exploration has been completed on several potential wells there.

However, the environmental movement against fracking in France now threatens to add another serious drawback to the efforts to transfer the technology from the United States to Europe. The French anti-fracking movement has adopted the same anti-corporate and anti-globalization line of argument that the anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movement used in the 1990s. In fact, some of the same groups and individuals, such as prominent environmentalist activist and current European Parliament member Jose Bove, who spearheaded the anti-GMO movement, are now leading the charge against fracking.

Environmental groups argue that the chemicals used in the fracking process can seep into the groundwater and contaminate the water supply. There is some evidence that this indeed happened in Pennsylvania, but due to well mismanagement, not necessarily due to an inherent flaw with the procedure. French environmental groups, however, are undeterred. The fracking issue fits well into their paradigm of environmental and anti-globalization attitudes, with foreign energy corporations seen as the perfect confluence of those two issues, as fracking techniques are almost exclusively used by U.S. energy corporations.

The French Anti-Fracking Movement’s Potential European Effect

France was never intended to be a major target of fracking drilling, with only a handful of licenses for exploratory drilling in the Paris basin issued. However, the opposition to fracking is not something that can be dismissed merely as a problem that will be contained in France. French environmentalist and anti-globalization movements of the 1990s were highly successful in essentially halting GMO adoption throughout Europe. Intense political pressure forced France to shift its position on GMOs, which, because France is a European power, was felt throughout the Continent. This was also particularly notable because France is a global leader in biotechnology, which means that Paris went against considerable French corporate interest in the case of GMOs due to the intensity of environmentalist and anti-globalization efforts.

The anti-fracking case is even easier for the French government to adopt, which is why Sarkozy’s party has taken up the issue so quickly. There is no French corporate fracking expertise, and the country has no strategic need for more natural gas considering its commitment to nuclear power — and environmentalist groups’ opposition to nuclear power is generally relatively muted. The lack of opposition to nuclear power can partly be explained as a product of the undercurrent of nationalist rhetoric among the French environmentalist groups. Nuclear power is domestically produced by French companies and affords France energy independence. French environmentalist groups prefer to take on issues that have a notably globalized — in other words, American — element to them, which fracking and GMOs certainly exemplify. Such issues are received better by a wider constituency in France and are therefore easier to use to mobilize supporters.

If French environmentalist and anti-globalization groups take on anti-fracking as their first major post-GMO issue, there is a chance the movement will influence European-level regulatory practice, which is in its infancy on fracking.

Furthermore, French environmentalist groups could use their links to Central and Eastern European environmentalist groups to promote the anti-fracking movement across Europe, potentially making it a political issue in countries like Poland. Paris was seen as the focal point of the anti-GMO movement in Europe, and many of the anti-globalization and environmentalist nongovernmental organizations in other European countries still have close ties to their French counterparts as the result of a decadelong struggle against biotechnology companies.

This all works in Russia’s favor. Russia has campaigned vociferously against fracking, emphasizing its supposed inherent dangers via its government mouthpiece, Russia Today, the Kremlin-funded, English-language cable news network. If an indigenous environmentalist and anti-globalization movement in France takes on the cause as well, it will be far more difficult for governments to dismiss the environmental concerns as Russian propaganda.

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