Oil in France?

Few countries can afford to turn away from the prospect of developing 5bn bbl of oil, but France, as ever, is exceptional. François Hollande, the socialist president, has refused to allow hydraulic fracking. In France, fracking is associated in the public mind with shale gas – a form of energy which is thought of, alongside Anglo-Saxon banks, McDonalds and other manifestations of globalisation, as fundamentally un-French and therefore bad.

France has plenty of shale gas which will now never be developed, presumably. The president’s announcement did not mention the country’s ‘tight oil’ resources. The question being asked in Paris is whether Mr Hollande knew just how great the prize of tight oil could be.

Tight oil is light crude oil contained in petroleum-bearing rock formations of relatively low porosity and permeability. In the US the largest tight find to date is the Bakken formation in the Williston Basin underlying Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated the recoverable reserves from the Bakken at 3bn to 4.3bn barrels. Since then, reserve estimates have steadily increased and the most recent serious estimate puts the total at 18bn bbl. Production has risen from nothing to half a million barrels a day. Production technology for tight oil uses the same horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques as for shale gas.

In Europe, the largest single reserve of tight oil is believed to lie in the Paris Basin – across a range of the countryside north of the city. A startling paper from the eminent geologist Gérard Medaisko suggests that the Paris Basin holds at least as much tight oil as the Bakken. He puts the minimum figure at 5bn bbls. He is not alone in this view. A string of international companies are also interested in the area. Many hold licences across France, which, if the president’s statement in September is sustained as government policy, will in effect be valueless.

The question is whether Mr Hollande was properly briefed before making his statement.

On the science of shale gas development his statement ignores the recent publications by the International Energy Agency (based in Paris) and the Royal Society (based – more dangerously – in London). Both set out how fracking can be done safely and with minimal environmental impact.

More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that the president ignored the distinction between shale gas and tight oil.

Shale gas is one thing and it would be possible to argue that no one should be adding to the glut of gas which is emerging across Europe.

But oil is something else. France imports about 1.7m barrels of oil a day and at today’s price of $112 that costs the country about €5.4bn a year.

France has a large financial deficit and an unemployment rate of more than 10 per cent. Both would have been helped by the revenues and jobs that tight oil development would have brought.

The debate in France is not quite over, with the unions as well as the oil and gas industry now belatedly weighing in to balance the environmental lobby. In some regions, local officials are pressing the case for development. Mr Hollande is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. I would not be surprised to see some drilling permitted – perhaps in limited areas where the balance of local opinion is clearly in favour. The French may be exceptional but they are rarely completely irrational.