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”.