The iconically beautiful French countryside will remain safe from a series of new natural gas extraction projects, as the French government has outlawed the controversial extraction method known as “fracking.” The Western European nation, which is believed to have some of the biggest natural reserves in Europe, is the first country in the world to put an outright ban on fracking.
Fracking, a term that’s short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water and sand mixed with a cocktail of synthetic chemicals deep into underground oil shale deposits, to force out hidden reserves of natural gas that cannot be extracted any other way. Pioneered in the early years of the twenty-first century by companies like Halliburton, fracking has dramatically increased estimates of the amount of natural gas that could be recovered for fuel in the US and other countries.
However fracking comes with huge environmental costs. Many of the nearly six hundred chemical compounds used for gas fracking are dangerous to human health, and can pollute drinking water by seeping into groundwater near a fracking site. In the US, energy companies in most states aren’t required to disclose what chemicals they use while fracking; but widely used compounds include the carcinogen benzene and more than sixty other chemicals that cause cancer or other health problems.
Fracking also frees underground deposits of methane gas that can seep into groundwater or escape into the air. In some parts of the US where fracking is widespread, water from an indoor tap can actually become flammable due to methane released by nearby fracking projects. The image of water from a faucet being lit on fire with a match has become a rallying point for environmentalists concerned about the dangers of fracking for gas.
In other countries fracking is also controversial, as shown by a rash of large protests that broke out in France in response to proposals to begin fracking the nation’s large shale gas deposits. On June 21st the French National Assembly, the lower legislative chamber in France, voted to ban the practice of fracking outright. Last week, on June 30th, the legislation was passed by the French Senate and became law.
Not everyone is happy about France’s new fracking ban, or agrees that it goes far enough. Members of the French Socialist Party opposed the legislation on the grounds that it will not do enough to bring destructive extraction projects to a halt. Lawmakers from the Socialist Party argued that all methods of drilling in shale deposits, not just fracking, should be banned.
Still, by making fracking illegal France has taken a step that could reverberate throughout the world. From South Africa to Canada, countries with large natural gas deposits are under pressure from industry to allow fracking to move forward. Yet France’s decision that the environmental and health costs of fracking outweigh any benefits may inspire other countries to put similar restrictions on the practice.
In the US, New Jersey has implemented the first statewide legislative ban on fracking, while other states and local governments look at stronger regulations to control the damage from natural gas extraction. Fracking companies in Texas are now required to publicly disclose a list of chemicals they use during the fracking process, making it easier for environmental groups and nearby communities to judge the risk to local water supplies.
As fracking spreads across the US and around the world, and as the health impacts associated with it become more widely known, lawmakers at the state and national levels will have to decide how to deal with the impact of this new type of gas extraction. Last week France became the first nation in the world to decide to ban fracking, but it will probably not be the last.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/endymion120/5023861260/sizes/m/in/photostream/