France Geothermal Energy Debate: When Is Fracking not Fracking?

It’s an existential question in France: When is fracking not fracking?

The country is pushing ahead with plans to harness geothermal energy from smoldering rock deep in the earth’s crust using drilling methods the oil industry says are like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which France outlawed in 2011.

Environment Minister Delphine Batho awarded two geothermal exploration licenses in February and said 18 more are in review. Some will permeate rock using a process called “stimulation” that blasts acid and water into fissures to release volcanic heat. That may be seen as similar to how U.S. explorers use chemical cocktails to fracture fossil fuels from shale rock.

France’s Socialist-led government grew enthusiastic about generating power from underground heat reservoirs as President Francois Hollande pledged to lower dependence on atomic power. The country banned fracking for its “serious health and environmental risks,” and canceled shale exploration licenses held by Total SA, its biggest oil company, and U.S.-based Schuepbach Energy LLC. The French oil-industry lobby disagrees.

“Granting geothermal exploration permits is creating a double standard,” said Jean-Louis Schilansky, head of Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, the group that’s pushing for a review of French shale energy restrictions. “The drilling methods are similar to fracking.”

Yesterday Pierre-Marie Abadie, who heads the energy division in the ministry, told an oil conference in Paris that geothermal fracking “would continue to be allowed. The law hasn’t banned it.”

Stimulating Rock

At the heart of the dispute is whether French government authorization for the “stimulation” of rock fissures with water and acid to access geothermal heat is comparable to oil and gas fracking, in which shale is shattered using high- pressure water, sand and chemicals to release hydrocarbons.

France “is fracking for geothermal,” Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said at the conference. She called on France to review its stance on fracking in light of its “high import bills” for natural gas.

French geothermal permits granted so far are in the Massif Central mountains to Electerre de France SAS, a company backed by investor Charles Beigbeder, and in the Pyrenees to Groupe Fonroche Energie, which installs solar panels.

French geothermal backers say drilling methods aren’t the same as for shale energy.

Geothermal Backers

The projects “won’t require fracking,” Elsa Demangeon, project manager at the renewable energy lobby Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables, said by telephone. “Some rock stimulation may be needed at the start but this is to reopen existing fissures.”

She acknowledged projects are being approved despite a current “legal void” on the difference.

The government said methods have evolved for tapping geothermal energy, which is based on the fact that the earth’s temperature increases with depth to reach thousands of degrees Celsius at the core.

“Hydraulic fracturing was used in the past but it’s not anymore,” Batho said in an interview when asked about the geothermal permits she has awarded. “These projects will make use of existing fissures.”

The world had about 11,000 megawatts of installed geothermal power generating capacity in 2012, more than a quarter of which is in the U.S., according to a market update published by the Washington-based Geothermal Energy Association. Italy has more than half of Europe’s capacity.

Hot Springs

Early installations in Italy, the U.S. and Iceland used energy from natural hot springs and steam at the surface to produce electricity.

The first so-called hot, dry rock experiment was carried out in the 1970s at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in which water was pumped about three kilometers underground at high pressure into hot, compact rock causing hydraulic fracturing and release of heat, according to the International Geothermal Association website .

Similar projects, often referred to as enhanced geothermal systems, were developed in Australia, Japan and Germany. In France, a European research project that began in 1987 at Soultz-sous-Forets in Alsace remains the mainland’s only deep geothermal site.

With a power-generating capacity of 1.5 megawatts, it relied on “mini hydraulic fracturing” and rock “stimulation” for its development, according to a report by the French mining authority Bureau de Recherches Geologiques et Minieres, a government advisory group that oversees the installation.

No Fracturing

Now, as the country seeks geothermal energy on a bigger scale, it will allow for geology to be “stimulated” using water or chemicals to increase their permeability, according to the geothermal project tenders published by the French environment and energy efficiency agency Ademe.

The projects “won’t use fracking in the strict sense of the term because there won’t be fracturing,” said Romain Vernier, head of the BRGM’s geothermal division. “Hydraulic stimulation at the onset will reopen existing fissures blocked by mineral deposits and then it won’t have to be repeated.”

Acid will be used in geothermal rock cracks as opposed to the chemicals and sand used by the oil and gas industry while hydraulic pressure will be lower, according to Vernier. Nevertheless, this “stimulation” could create seismic events like one cause by the Soultz-sous-Forets project, which had a magnitude of 2.9 and was felt on the ground, he said.

A project in Basel, Switzerland was shut down in 2006 after causing an earthquake of magnitude 3.4.

Lower Risk

The hazards posed by the type of drilling required for the French geothermal projects are “likely to be lower than for gas fracking,” said Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist at the University of Edinburgh. “There still are risks.”

Rock that is as many as six kilometers underground is under “critical stress” that could be perturbed by acid or cooling, creating tremors or cracks, he said. Pressure on borehole casings could also cause leaks and water contamination.

For the French oil industry, risks of tremors and the fact that drilling may cross sources of drinking water raise the same type of questions as shale drilling did.

“Every type of traditional geothermal drilling can include fracking because of the need to ensure enough water circulates and gets heated,” Claude Mandil, a former head of the IEA who now sits on Total’s board now, said. “The risks of provoking seismic activity or water pollution are the same.”

‘Hushed Up’

“Talk of geothermal and fracking is being hushed up so as not to provoke an outcry,” Mandil said. “There may be some acceptance of it for geothermal because that energy is renewable.”

Fonroche, the French company that won the Pyrenees permit, plans to invest about 82 million euros ($106 million) to explore the geothermal potential of a license called “Pau-Tarbes” spanning about 1000 square kilometers.

“We will develop innovative methods” to drill between four and six kilometers underground for deep hot water aquifers, Jean-Philippe Soule, CEO of the company’s geothermal division, said by telephone. “At those depths we will have to clean out and reopen existing rock fissures. We won’t go to places where fracking or even rock stimulation is needed.”

The drilling methods favored by Fonroche won’t pose environmental risks or cause earthquakes, he said.

The company is also among the promoters, along with Electricite de Strasbourg and Moore Geothermie Sarl, of four exploration projects to pump water at temperatures of more than 150 degrees Celsius from “naturally fractured” deep geological zones in Alsace, according to documents published on the ministry’s website for public consultations. These northeastern French permits haven’t yet been granted by the government.

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg

Lead image: Geothermal plant via Shutterstock

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