Fracking in Champagne country: Bubbles of discontent

This post was written by Guest Post on July 10, 2012
Posted Under: Environment

This is a guest post by Ellen Goyder

The “Bassin parisien,” a large area round Paris, is what you might call France’s Home Counties. Winding through the three départements in the East is the River Marne, with its vine-clad slopes. The vineyards start some forty miles from Paris and extend to where the Marne valley widens out around Epernay. This is where France grows much of its Champagne.

The three departments have something else in common now beside the river and the vineyards: shale oil licences. The first licences were granted back in 2009 by the then Ministre de l’énergie Jean Louis Borloo, but under French Mining Law these could remain secret until 2011 when the Regional authorities learned of their existence – “happened to find found out about them” as one representative put it in a meeting.

Four new licences have now been granted in the Southern triangle of the Aisne department, where a French operator called Toreador (now Toreador-Hess) boasts of holding licences covering more than 4000 square miles. (The opposition has taken the bull by the horns and called itself the Collectif Carmen). This is in the Picardy region, whose Regional Council opposes the project, arguing that to shatter bedrock at a depth of 1 1/2 miles, first vertically, then horizontally, for the extraction of shale oil is an industrial project incompatible with the 2007 “Grenelle” agreements between national and local government. These set out concrete measures to tackle environmental issues – safer roads, cleaner rivers and lakes for water sports and tourism, agriculture and market gardening, not to mention wine-growing. Champagne growers are not necessarily impressed when told that their region is sitting on a second fortune.

Indeed, people here find it hard to believe that new licences have been granted. “But we thought that was all over” they say, having heard last year from the media all about a new law ruling out the use of “fracking” in the extraction of shale oil and gas plus the well-advertised suspension by Nicolas Sarkozy of drilling licences in some particularly unruly areas of Southern France last summer.

Unfortunately, however, the law closed the door but left the window open. Last January oil companies met in Paris with the specific agenda “How to Get Round the Law Forbidding Fracking” (with the then Prime Minister to help them). Article 4 of the law allows for “exploratory” fracking, a provision which has been confirmed by decree.

Though the sites acquired for this purpose are not in the Marne Valley itself, water here drains down towards the Marne. The slogan and blog of one village association is “Touche pas ma roche mere” – “don’t touch my bedrock”.

In the towns of Chateau Thierry and Charly-sur-Marne, meetings on fracking have attracted large audiences. At these meetings a poster was displayed, showing “before” and “after” views of the land acquired for drilling (see above). The “after” view, based on documents from the U.S., shows new road infra-structures and buildings, vats for storage and trucks for transport of water, sand, chemicals and gas, plus the famous open “swimming pools” stocking chemically polluted water for cost effective re-use (each well requiring 33 million gallons), and the derricks themselves, which multiply fast because each well can only be exploited for a short period.

Villagers told of how they (but not their Mayor) had received unofficial visits from company executives looking for accommodation for workers, and technicians listing wells on private property. The visitors were reassuring: no, work on the site would not begin till next year, and drilling would take place first on the sites in the Seine-et-Marne department.

This was, however, not quite good enough to reassure people faced with the industrialisation of their countryside. Meetings are now being organized at village level. The issue is as much about democracy as environmentalism, the opposition insisting in particular on the need to change French Mining Law. The people here who are planning action are not doing it to change society but because they are offended that their countryside and the views of  their elected officials count for so little.
As Christine Lecq, who lives near a site and is a spokeswoman for the Carmen Collective, put it to me: “We are aware that our countryside here appeals to people, that our villages, landscapes and regions have a history and a culture which we try to preserve and transmit with products like champagne, with our traditions, our cooking, a French art de vivre. These are values to which we are extremely attached and we refuse to see them disappear, as we owe it to the past to remember this heritage and pass it on. We descend from feudal peasants who worked on the land here for the lord of the manor. Our country is not a terra incognita to be “discovered” and we will never agree to being “Americanised” by the black-gold diggers, since we have our own treasure and always have and it is elsewhere.”

In other words, as I heard someone say during a demonstration:-“The Aisne department is not a doormat with WELCOME written all over it”.

Is this simply a local or a national issue? Just about the Bassin parisien and a few bubbles of methane and benzene in your champagne glass? The Carmen Collective doesn’t see it that way. Their stickers say: “Not today, not ever. Not here, not anywhere”.

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Reader Comments


For an informative blog on fracking, please visit Dr. James Verdon’s blog Frack-Land


Written By Owain on July 12th, 2012 @ 1:26 am

It’s worth noting that the graphic above shows what is imagined during multiple simultaneous rigs running during the drilling phase. Once these wells are drilled and capped, the rigs move on and drill the next well. What’s left behind is a concrete pad, and a well-head, sometimes with pump attached, depending on resevoir pressure. These will then be connected to a network of pipes, which will run to a terminal for processing and purification, before injection into the gas network.

It’s worth noting that wells can be sucsessfully drilled and operated for many years in environments without unduly disturbing the landscape. For example Wytch Farm, WesternEurope’s largest onshore oifileld . This was drilled in Devon, in a very beautiful (IMHO) and environmentally sensitive area. This was sucsessfully done using directional drilling, and has left the area largely undisturbed.

Written By Owain on July 12th, 2012 @ 1:47 am

Also, I can’t check as theré’s no link to sources, but 33m gallons for each well sounds high, shouldn’t it be more like 3? To help put the figures in context, leakage last year for the UK water network was 660 million gallons a day. So even if the 33m gallon per well figure is right, then assuming each well takes about two weeks to complete (rough guess from memory)then you’d need to drill 300 wells simultaneously, to even equal the loss of water of the UK water network. And the polluted water is stored in ponds, so that it doesn’t drain away and contaminate the landscape, and can then be disposed of by injection into suitable geological strata.

For information on the chemicals used in fracking, please go to .

Written By Owain on July 12th, 2012 @ 2:09 am

And to give an idea over oil and gas exploration over populated areas, take a look at Figure 8 of download and you’ll see that there are plenty of exploration blocks over the South-East of England. I’ve lived there for quite a while in the recent past and don’t remember hearing this exploration had caused any major health or environmental affects.

Written By Owain on July 12th, 2012 @ 2:13 am
ellen goyder

I like the remark about the beauty spot in Devon left upspoilt – after conventional or unconventional drilling? Are we talking about “fracking” here? They’ve already had time to clean up a site ? Overground, underground? No nasty side-effects? No suspect molecules? No suspect molecules, no ponds with hexavalent chromium (yes, as in Evin Brockovich), no sick dogs? Wow!

But Owain definitely has a point about quantities of water. Thousands not millions.
“L’hydrofracturation nécessite entre 10.000 à 20.000 mètres cubes d’eau par
forage. “.(‘fracking requires between 10 000 and 20 000 cubic metres of water for each drilling”.…/01029-20110415ARTFIG00605-gaz-et-petrole-de-schiste-des-ressources-controversees.php)

Written By ellen goyder on July 14th, 2012 @ 10:59 pm
Written By ellen goyder on July 15th, 2012 @ 7:10 am

Hi Ellen,

Wytch Farm was drilled with at-the-time cutting edge directional drilling, which is now much more common and cheaper, and crucial for “tight” gas, such as shale gas. Fracking has been carried out during oil and gas drilling for decades, to increase flow rates. The difference with modern unconvential gas drilling is that using directional drilling to drill horizontal holes through the gas-bearing layers, means that the drillers can then frack along the length of the hole, and liberate much more gas. So it’s the combination of directional drilling and fracking which make drilling “tight” gas possible.

As far as the clean-up goes, as far as I know there was very little to clean up, as the use of directional drilling meant multiple holes could be drilled from one collar (rig site), so there’s only a few wellheads and drillpads, and these are easily hidden with vegetation.

And no, no suspect molecules (whatever those are to you), no sick dogs, and no ponds of hexavalent chromium. I don’t know if they would’ve used them during the drilling process, but there’s certainly none there now. I’m certainly under the impression that the oil drilling had less impact than the oil-shale mining that used to occur there, pre-drilling. There are, of course, natural oil and gas seeps there, as there are across SE England, but I don’t think anyone’s ever measured the flow rates of those.

Written By Owain on July 19th, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

Metric imperial conversion: 1 cubic metre is approximately 220 gallons

Written By Owain on July 19th, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

by overground/underground, do you mean onshore/offhsore?

Written By Owain on July 19th, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

A general note on leaks from oil and gas wells. When drilling for oil and gas, you are inevitably drilling into a reservoir containing fluids under pressure. To counteract this pressure and prevent a blowout, drillers use a “mud” (drilling fluid), which is denser than water (usually a mix of water, shale and clays, with some additives). Because of this, care must be taken when drilling through potable water aquifers to prevent contamination. Wells are also cased and cemented, to different depths depending on the rocks it’s drilled through, and the type of well it is. Casing is inserting a metal pipe into the well, and cementing is sealing the edges of the well using a cement-based mix. Cementing and casing are thus very important when drilling any wells, and especially when drilling high pressure wells. An example of a bad cement job contributing to a blow out is the Mocando oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (though I think that’s still be argued about in the courts, so nobody sue me for saying that). Most of the examples of leaks I’ve seen referenced by anti-fracking activists have been related to bad cementing jobs, where fluids have been able to invade a strata that should have been sealed off. So it’s not been the high-pressures used during the fracking which have been the problem, but the effect those high pressures have with bad cementing jobs, and often some sort of contributing behaviour by the people running the drilling. So while these instances do occur, they’re the same sort of errors that can happen with conventional oil and gas drilling.

As technology and experience with drilling advances, so regulations and standard working practices evolve and improve. Fracking tight gas with horizontal drilling is a new combination of old technologies, and something where regulations need to be developed in tandem with drilling technology and technique, but it’s not something to be unusually afraid of.

Written By Owain on July 19th, 2012 @ 1:22 pm
Written By Owain on July 19th, 2012 @ 1:47 pm
ellen goyder

That sounds reassuring. I didn’t know about Devon. Look also at the tendancies to limit and deal with local damage in the new Pennsylvania legislation
(except the clause about secrecy for doctors!)
But isn’t the underlying issue climate change? Going beyond fossile fuels instead of going after the last drop!

Written By ellen goyder on July 21st, 2012 @ 5:48 am

Well climate change is certainly one of the issues. Nut there shale gas is useful. The reason for this is that natural gas is often used to replace coal in electricity generation, and only releases half as much CO2 per unit electricity as coal. It also tends to contain lower concentrations of other pollutants, and so needs less processing to remove them than coal. So it can lead to a drop in GHG emissions, without compromising energy security, or lowering people’s living standards (except coal mining communities, obviously). Natural gas electricity generation is a mature and reliable technology, and in electricity, reliability counts for a lot.

So my point can be summed up thus: we must not let perfect be the enemy of better. Shale gas can provide cheap energy with lower GHG emissions than the source of energy it is typically replacing. It won’t last for ever, and doesn’t remove the need for us to move towards less GHG intensive energy technologies in the future, but it is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. As you can see here
cheap natural gas from shale-gas drilling has been replacing coal.

I’m glad you’re reassured by the drilling in Dorset. It touches upon a wider point. We should not be afraid of things, just because they are new and sound different. Oil and Gas drilling is an industrial process, and like all industrial processes, it can be done well, or it can be done badly. The instances where it is done well doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax and not bothering keeping regulations and monitoring up to date. But neither do the instances where it hasn’t been done well mean that it can’t ever be done in case something bad happens. We have to weigh risks and approach things with a rational and practical approach, not one where fear is allowed to dominate reason. I don’t like it when fear is used by governments and political parties to drive campaigns to restrict people’s liberty and privacy before, and I don’t like it when environmental groups use it to scare people about technologies which could benefit people, or to impede people going about lawful activities.

Written By Owain on July 21st, 2012 @ 10:43 am
Written By Owain on July 21st, 2012 @ 10:44 am

Personally, I’d rather we built a shit-load of muclear power stations all around the coast of the UK (where sites are suitable), and invest in Thorium fission research, so we can one day dig all the energy we need out of the ground in Cornwall. We can use any surplus electricity for Hydrogen production, and to drop prices to encourage electrification of the transport network. Call me a crazed idealist if you will, but I think energy security, reliability and sustainability are vital for the future.

Written By Owain on July 21st, 2012 @ 10:54 am

Here’s an excellent post on why hysteria about risks from fracking are unhelpful and counter productive.

Written By Owain on July 26th, 2012 @ 10:12 pm
ellen goyder

You see citizen movements like the Champagne one as obstructing progress. I see it as fighting abuse of power. But communities need people with your tenacious rational
turn of mind to sort out what it’s important to protest about in order to live differently – i.e. not at tomorrow’s expense.

Written By ellen goyder on July 28th, 2012 @ 8:08 am

Thanks Ellen :)

FTR I don’t see the citizen movements as obstructing progress, I’m all for people self-organising and putting their point of view across. I just want the debate to be about things as they are, not as how people fear they might be.

Written By Owain on July 28th, 2012 @ 10:22 am
ellen goyder

But parents worry about what MIGHT HAPPEN to their children. They don’t NOT WORRY about what MIGHT NOT HAPPEN.
Older civilisations and small-scale societies had (have) that sense of “parental” responsibility for resources, other species, earth and landscape.
We don’t.

Written By ellen goyder on August 1st, 2012 @ 8:59 am

I’ll defer to the anthropologists on that one.

Written By Owain on August 1st, 2012 @ 9:38 am

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