French Report Backs Shale Gas, Oil Production

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"French government explores options for alternative energy sources."

A report published by the French government Wednesday could give impetus to the country's search for alternative energy sources.

One option that has been fiercely debated is shale gas, whose emergence in the U.S. has helped the country reduce its dependence on imported energy and eased prices while providing a fuel that burns cleaner than oil or coal. France has abundant shale, with the most promising drilling area covering 10,000 square kilometers in the southeast, and technological advances are making it possible to extract deposits trapped deep in the rock.

Wednesday's report by Senator Jacques Blanc said that for the sake of France's energy security, it was "legitimate to see if such resources [as oil sands and shale oil and gas] are potentially present in the national and European territories."

It isn't yet clear whether French shale holds commercially viable natural gas deposits or whether nearby residents can be persuaded that the benefits outweigh shale's environmental risks. A U.S. study released this week finding shale extraction generates more greenhouse-gas emissions than burning coal over 20 years could complicate matters further. Nor is shale gas likely to supplant nuclear power, which provides 80% of France's electricity, any time soon.

Residents backed by environmentalists have organized fierce demonstrations and media campaigns and made legal pleas. Energy Minister Eric Besson pledged in March to travel to the U.S. this month to assess the environmental impact of shale-gas extraction.

In the meantime, the government has commissioned a study of the potential environmental impact. A preliminary report is expected by Friday and a final report in June and, though the government insists no door has been shut, energy interests are fuming.

"Let's find if there is gas down there first, before debating about the merits of shale gas," said Total's boss, Christophe de Margerie.

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