After Le Club Energie & Devellopppement event in Paris Tuesday, I had a choice of sitting through the afternoon on renewables or attending the counter-colloquium organised nearby by opponents of shale. Although the actual colloquium on shale involved only four speakers and M. le Depute Gonnot, a five hour multi-participant anti-colloquium was held nearby.
By the time I arrived at the first conference, the hundred or so demonstrators, outnumbered by the police two to one, were being shepherded away. During the shale section, there was an outburst by Marine Jobert, anti-fracktiviste who shouted "Have you seen Gasland " when Bruno Courme of Total described the French shale ban as misinformed. It's early yet, but that one is a finalist for dumbest question of 2012. It's hard to think that the head of global shale would not have seen it.
At the afternoon event I missed the hour of introductory videos but did sit through 90 minutes of presentation on the current state of shale gas. I didn't sit thorough the end of the five hour conference either, I had a train to catch.
It was a disappointment but a revelation as well. If this was the best evidence available, the debate is won already. To this audience, as to many in North America and the UK, it was forever 2009 - the year Gasland was filmed. Five hundred secret chemicals, poisoned water, right wing conspiracy and that was only when they were talking about shale. The audience was told how bad the tar sands are for example. I agree, but it has nothing to do with shale gas. To then go and talk about drilling for gas in the arctic made this clear: any natural gas from anywhere was the enemy.The only concession to recent times was of course a citation of the Howarth Report that said coal is worse than gas. Even the UK Tyndall Centre has dropped Howarth recently, but not in Paris.
I was quite frankly disappointed: I know France reasonably well and in the land of Descartes and Pasteur and Curie I would have expected a little more Cartesian logic. I'm the guy after all who quoted Voltaire to the UK Parliament Shale Committee report: We mustn't make the perfect (80% renewables by 2050) the enemy of the good (shale today). But the second tier academics present were rambling, mis-informed and only cited hearsay evidence no stronger than US opponents: My friend from Quebec told me this, I used to be chemist (in pharmaceuticals, not petro chemistry), someone I met from New York told me etc etc.
But as we see from some of the opponents in Blackpool, Balcombe or Bulgaria possession of the facts is not important - its the narrative that counts. The audience was very engaged and fired up but this emotion is their weakness: Opposition is based on their narrative. Start deconstructing it and they're high and dry.
The meeting confirmed my suspicion that the opposition in France has always been overstated. It's broad, but it is not deep. An application of facts, combined with a postive economic story from the US now too powerful to ignore, can provide realistic balance.
Let's recall again that the French shale ban is cited by opponents throughout the world, but when people will say publicly what they've been telling me since last May, i.e. it was a mistake based on a failure of communication it shows that the ban will be overcome slowly but surely. It's worth noting that's close to the words the CEO of Total told a Belgian paper today "the debate is sure to evolve".
But the key reason why the French anti-shale debate will fail is complex, political and certain. The opposition is very much nimby based. The meeting confirmed what I have suspected from French TV reports, visits to sites like Schiste Happens and press photographs. This is a Not Under My BackYard movement overwhelmingly supported by the old and the incomers. And as someone in Poland recently noted you waste a lot of time trying to counter their arguments. Incomers or weekend residents which make up lots of the upstate New York and PA opposition confuse the issue by endlessly repeating the same tired old objections even when they know themselves it's not correct. This confuses shale supporters because although enviromental groups often do have legitimate concerns, we must come to a conclusion:
Older incomers or weekend/vacation residents will be impossible to convince for the very good reason that they do not wish to be convinced. The entire reason that they find their area attractive is that they want no development at all. To many people any change at all is a change for the worse. That type of person is often fairly well off, or old and set in their ways or both.
But moving from sociology to psychology here, the industry can't win with this group because they are not being honest with themselves. The generation in their sixties and seventies today is the one that grew up with Elvis and Dylan. They could never admit to themselves that they are actually selfish! Naturally, they would never admit it to anyone else either.
Now I'm no spring poulet myself, so let me explain. I spent a year in university in France in the 1970's and for anyone expecting long skirted ecologist hippy girls demonstrating on Tuesday I would say that was only partly right.The hippy girls were there, but they were the same ones of the seventies, along with me. Both of us older, rarely wiser and some well preserved, some not so well. I spent time not only in Paris but further south in places like Montpellier and some sections of the Ardeche. Most of the original Ardeche population of peasants moved to Paris years ago, as people from Bradford County PA moved to Florida but in far greater numbers. Underpopulation is a key problem in both areas. Some parts of rural France are now dominated by a combination of hippies who found property at give away prices forty years ago and a small group of old timers very attached to the land emotionally. They were joined by retirees who were comfortably well off but not comfortably well enough off that they could live on the Riviera or the tonier parts of Provence or Tuscany. Just as in upstate PA or Pennsylvania many of the retirees are people who didn't want to move to Florida but couldn't afford to move to Cape Cod or Great Barrington or Vermont.
This over sixties/left over from nineteen sixties cluster made up 80% of the Tuesday audience. For such a broad objection to shale that it was banned I would have expected not only more of the young; but I also didn't see two key groups in any French debate: Where were the trade unions? And, where were the black, Asian and North African communities?
The shale industry can only offer reassurance to the bruised egos of the opponents who have turned into reactionary nimbys but who are simply not honest enough to admit it.
We can assure people but not always can we win them over.The industries actions will be stronger than words, and need to be scrupously honest. But the task is being made much more difficult by opponents not being honest with themselves.