France finds itself in an interesting conundrum that the oil industry is hoping to take advantage of: The country has banned fracking but is now planning to tap into geothermal energy which requires a process similar to fracking.
In 2011, France banned shale fracking. In February, France’s Environment Ministry awarded two exploration licenses for geothermal energy, which involves drilling deep into the Earth’s crust.
The media has described the oil industry as up in arms over France’s geothermal plans. It’s not fair. Fracking is, after all, fracking. But more to the point, the oil industry likely sees an opportunity here to reverse the fracking ban.
France will have a hard time arguing that geothermal fracking is so much different than shale fracking. The outcome will either be to foster public opposition to geothermal energy plans and sideline this as well, or to advance the shale cause. (Related article: U.S. Game Changing Renewable - Geothermal Power)
And France’s geothermal energy plans are rather ambitious: Not only have they awarded three licenses, but they are reviewing 18 more. At the same time, along with the 2011 ban on shale fracking, the government revoked shale exploration licenses awarded to France’s Total SA and the US’ Schuepbach Energy LLC.
Geothermal drilling requires injecting acid and water into fissures to release volcanic heat trapped in rocks in the Earth’s crust. By way of comparison, shale fracking requires an injection of chemicals and water to fracture oil and gas from shale rock buried under the Earth’s surface. The processes are similar, if not the same.
The oil industry is attempting to call out the Environment Ministry and demanding a review of the fracking ban.
So what IS the difference? Geothermal energy experts say the French projects won’t require the same methods as shale fracking, and that they will only be using rock stimulation to open fissures that are already there. The argument is that they won’t need hydraulic fracturing, because it was already completed earlier.
The oil industry isn’t buying into this because there will ultimately be a bit of fracking to reopen the existing fissures—and fracking is fracking. (Related article: How to Buy Your Own Shale Boom)
The other difference is that geothermal extraction uses acid rather than the chemicals and sand required for shale fracking.
The oil industry is also quick to point out that geothermal extraction has also created earthquakes and tremors in the past, much like shale fracking is said to do.
Overall, geothermal extraction is believed to be lower risk, but certainly not risk free both in terms of potential water pollution and seismic activity.
Regardless, the Environment Ministry will have to deal with what is clearly a legislative black hole on this issue.