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French Energy Minister Wants to Ban U.S. Shale Gas Imports

Five years after enacting a ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking), France's energy minister told lawmakers she is looking into a possible ban on U.S. shale gas imports, arguing that it is hypocritical for her country to ban the practice domestically, yet indirectly support fracking elsewhere by continuing the imports.

According to reports, French Environment and Energy Minister Ségolène Royal spoke about a possible shale gas import ban during a question-and-answer session with lawmakers in the French National Assembly on May 10.

"I will examine how legally we can ban shale gas imports," Royal said, according to a translated statement, as reported by the French newspaper Le Monde. "We cannot ban shale gas on French territory for serious environmental reasons and simultaneously accept imports."

Royal then reportedly sent a letter to the CEOs of two French electric utilities -- Isabelle Kocher at Engie SA and Jean-Bernard Lévy at Électricité de France SA (EDF) -- urging them to reject any gas import contracts that could undermine France's commitments on climate change.

"Looking ahead, I ask you to give up signing any gas import contract that would undermine energy policy led by France, and to verify the origin and gas production mode of the imported gas so that the latter is exclusively from conventional sources," Royal wrote in the May 11 letter, according to Le Monde.

A ban on U.S. shale gas imports could be problematic for Cheniere Energy Inc. Last October, a Cheniere subsidiary signed a five-year agreement with Engie, formerly GDF Suez, to deliver up to 12 cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) per year between 2018 and 2023 (see Daily GPIOct. 28, 2015). The LNG cargoes constitute approximately 222 billion Btu in total.

Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of France's Total SA, reportedly said a ban on U.S. shale gas imports would be "a mistake" for Europe, and said the company would buy U.S. shale gas "within a year or two."

"U.S. gas imports are expected in Europe and elsewhere in the world," Pouyanne said, according to a translated statement as reported by the French weekly business magazine Challenges. "It's a global marketplace. I don't know how you could enact such a ban, when you talk about transatlantic treaties and free trade.

"It would be wrong for European industry, especially heavy industry, which has been recovering its competitiveness, thanks in part to low natural gas prices."

In a separate interview with Parisian magazine, as reported by Challenges, EDF’s Lévy said that "when a tanker arrives in a European port, it's not known how the gas was produced. We don't know if it comes from conventional sources, shale gas drilling or from an offshore platform. North American gas, whether from Canada or the United States, is already a mixture of conventional and shale gas."

Sébastien Mabile, an attorney for the environmental group Fondation Nicolas Hulot, told Le Monde that France 2011's ban on fracking did not apply to marketing gas produced through the practice.

"Opposing the importation of these hydrocarbons runs afoul of the rules allowing the free movement of goods among members of the World Trade Organization [WTO]," Mabile said in a translated statement. "Unfortunately, environmental concerns are secondary at the WTO. Minister Royal's initiative is a good one, but it looks very complicated."

France enacted a ban on fracking in July 2011, under then-president Nicholas Sarkozy, citing health and environmental concerns. Sarkozy's successor, French President Francois Hollande, kept the ban in place after taking office in 2012 (see Shale DailySept. 18, 2012).

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