By Larry West, About.com Guide May 12, 2011
France is poised to become the first country to ban hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking or hydrofracking, a controversial technique used to extract natural gas and oil trapped in underground rock formations by injecting a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals at high pressure to crack open the rock and release the fossil fuels.
Lawmakers in the lower house of the French parliament have voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, which critics and environmentalists say pollutes the water table and contaminates drinking water. If the Senate next month votes the same way, France will set a precedent for national bans on fracking.
France gets most of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and is often held up as a model by those who want to expand the use of nuclear energy, but Japan’s recent nuclear crisis has led the French to start exploring other energy sources. That effort gained momentum recently when the European Center for Energy and Resource Security reported that Europe could cover its energy needs for the next 60 years if it developed its unconventional natural gas resources.
But while French lawmakers ponder how to exploit new energy sources and expand the nation’s energy portfolio, they are constrained by public concern over the environmental consequences. That’s especially true in light of new evidence against fracking, such as the Duke University study that found methane-contaminated drinking water in 85 percent of the private wells tested in Pennsylvania and New York.
Still, it seems no one is satisfied with the fracking ban as it is currently written. Oil and gas companies see it as an impediment. Environmentalists think it doesn’t go far enough.
If the bill is not significantly altered by the Senate, the new law would not revoke any permits that have already been granted. Instead, it would require companies to deliver a report to the government, detailing all the methods they plan to use in exploring or drilling for gas and oil. If those methods include hydraulic fracturing, the permits will be denied.
If the companies fail to report their intention to use fracking, and are discovered using it, executives could face a fine of €75,000 ($107,000) and be sent to prison.
As the bill moves to the French Senate, the debate is almost sure to devolve into the usual arguments about economy versus environment. It shouldn’t.
There is no inherent conflict between environmental sustainability and economic growth. The problem arises when industry operates with complete disregard for the environment, or when environmentalists try to block legitimate industry practices because they aren’t 100-percent green.
The world depends on energy. It’s going to take years to bring clean energy sources to the point where they can replace fossil fuels. Meanwhile, we need to find ways to extract and use fossil fuels that do the least possible damage to the environment and public health.
Fracking doesn’t meet that goal. The ban should stand. And other nations should follow France’s lead.
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