Global Politics

French farmland tapped for oil

Correspondent Anita Elash reports that the world's thirst for oil and oil-extracting technologies might transform fertile farm land in east of Paris into an oil field.

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Head out 40 miles southeast of Paris, and you might notice oil wells six and 29, tucked between a field of freshly-sprouted winter wheat and an oak and poplar forest.

The wells near the town of Rosay en Brie were drilled twenty five years ago, during a mini oil boom in the region. They were shut down after a few years, but now they're up and running again as test wells for the Canadian firm Vermilion Energy. Vermillion believes the wells may hold the key to a vast new oil resource a mile and a half below the surface.
Vermilion executive Patrick Monget, who runs the company's operation in what's known as the Paris Basin, says the industry has long known that the small amount of oil pumped out of the region over the years is part of a much larger deposit. But most of that petroleum is trapped inside fine-grained rock called shale. It's difficult and expensive to get out, and for years it wasn't worth the cost.

But these days, oil prices are high and there's a new technology called hydraulic fracturing that makes it easier to get at the resource.

The technology, which was developed in the U.S, injects huge amounts of water mixed with small amounts of chemicals deep underground, to break apart the shale. Monget says tests using the two wells here show that hydraulic fracturing could unlock as much as 200 billion barrels of oil. That's potentially enough that ten companies are competing to explore the ground under more than fifty thousand square miles of fields and forests around the Seine and Marne rivers east of Paris.

If their bets pay off, it could represent both a potential windfall for France and a huge problem.

France currently produces only one per cent of the petroleum it uses. Charles Lamiraux, who's in charge of oil exploration for the French energy ministry, says the Paris Basin shale could increase that five-fold.

�That would be very important,� Lamiraux says. �It would be oil that we don't have to buy from a developing country, and it would improve our trade balance.

But Lamiraux says development of the oil could have a big impact on the local environment.
�We will have to do the most we can to minimize that,� Lamiraux says.

The French government has three major concerns about the hydraulic fracturing process.
One is water. On average, hydraulic fracturing uses as much water for each well as a hundred thousand French people use in a day.

The second is potential contamination of both the soil and the ground water. And the third is the large number of wells needed to extract the oil�ten to twenty times as many as are used in conventional drilling.

All these concerns have all caused a backlash against hydraulic fracturing in parts of the U.S., and French environmentalists fear the impacts could be devastating to a region that has produced large quantities of vegetables, grain, and Brie cheese for centuries. The Paris Basin shale sits under the most fertile farmland in France, and the region is crucial to both the country's food supply and its character. Local environmental activist Marie-Paul Duflot points to the gently rolling prairie, the 10th century yellow stone church, and the chance to see deer or wild boar at sunset as she walks through a dormant wheat field at the edge of the village of Sivry. Duflot, who runs the organization Nature and Environment 77, says these are examples of what she likes most about this part of France.

People here long ago got used to seeing the occasional oil rig in the area, Dufflot says, but she was shocked to learn about the industry's much more ambitious plans.

�I don't want to see the countryside transformed into fields of oil derricks,� Duflot says.

She also says there's already a water shortage in the region, and fears it could become even worse if the oil industry takes off.

The industry responds that it's working to reduce the amount of water needed for the hydraulic fracturing process. Companies also say that done correctly, the technology presents no risk of water or soil contamination.
For its part, the French government says it will do whatever it takes to protect the environment, even if that means putting strict limits on the number of wells.

And that's where things get sticky.

Vermilion Energy's Vice-President of European operations Peter Sider says limits that are too strict could kill the project. He acknowledges that developing the shale oil here could have a significant impact on the surface, but says that as long as people need oil, there will have to be some tradeoffs.

�Unfortunately, the reality of the life on the world today is that we're dependent on hydrocarbons,� Sider says. He acknowledges that there are a growing number of alternatives, but says they just don't compete with oil at current prices.
�As long as hydrocarbons are relatively cheap then we're addicted to it,� Sider says.

France is working to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, although less aggressively than some of its neighbors. Meanwhile, French environmentalists like Marie-Paul Duflot are just starting to learn about the hydraulic fracturing process and what it might mean for the Paris Basin.
On that point, at least, the greens are in much the same boat as the oil companies. Vermillion Energy says it will take several years of expensive exploration just to figure out the commercial potential of this new oil frontier.