New mining code a disaster for geothermal in France?

New mining code a disaster for geothermal in France? Drilling rig at Velizy-Villacoublay, France (source: Engie Solutions)
Alexander Richter 18 May 2021

In a strong opinion piece, Jean-Jacques Graff, President of AFPG points to the hampering effect of conditions set forth in the reform on the French mining code.

In an article published last week, Jean-Jacques Graff, President of BYGéo SAS and President of AFPG (French Association of Geothermal Professionals) describes the reform of the Mining Code in France a disaster for the future of geothermal energy in the country. The climate and resilience law aims to accelerate the energy transition and the replacement of fossil fuels. But the reform of the mining code amounts to severely hampering geothermal energy, renewable, clean and non-intermittent energy, so the author.

The National Assembly adopted on first reading the Law on the fight against climate change and building resilience in the face of its effects. This bill includes in its articles 20 and 21 the elements putting a final touch to the reform of the Mining Code in progress for many years. What impacts for geothermal energy?

Geothermal energy has already undergone some reforms in 2019, mainly in the management of mining titles through the ESSOC Law. These modifications, closely discussed with the industry, brought some improvements in the rather complex procedures allowing the obtaining of exploration and exploitation titles. They also raised the level of requirements for operators and led to more severe competition at the end of the operating period. Finally, the bulk of the 2019 reform consisted of improving public information and environmental requirements. Who can oppose it?

The same constraints as the exploitation of gold or nickel mines

The reform of the Mining Code currently underway extends these last principles already adopted for geothermal energy to all mining activities. We could only congratulate ourselves on that.

Unfortunately, the current reform has added additional constraints to geothermal energy, which is considered to be equal to the extraction of gold in Guyana or nickel in New Caledonia. The most impactful measure is the 30-year guarantee which requires the operator to monitor the structures for 30 years after the end of their operation. This constraint alone risks plaguing an entire industry. Normally when a well is at the end of operation, it is plugged according to a strict protocol and controlled by the authorities, it is then returned to the owner of the basement, namely the State. According to this bill, it would be necessary to control the structure for 30 years after its end of life, which will mean maintaining an activity for many years on a site,

Regulatory, administrative and political barriers

Another point of difficulty that looms on the horizon is recourse to more information and more involvement of the public and communities. It is in itself a very beautiful and noble attention, but in practice it is the door open to new difficulties which the operator will have to face: the syndrome of the local electoral periods! Many players have experienced it and this does not only happen in geothermal energy, there is also wind power which disfigures the landscape, biomass which rejects harmful fumes, methanizers with foul odors or solar collectors which occupy hectares of land. We want renewable energies, but far from home.

The additional penalty for geothermal energy is that the underground, this unknown, quite easily arouses anxiety among the population. So, unscrupulous candidates drape themselves in knightly attire to lead a campaign against geothermal energy accused of all evils. Also, an event like the one in Strasbourg at the end of 2020 brings them water to their mill; we no longer rationally discuss to understand what happened and find the solutions, but we switch to the emotional and there it is difficult to convince. We forget that there is no human damage, no large-scale disaster and we open the door to all the pseudo-experts who by surfing the internet predict the apocalypse.

Do not develop geothermal energy, a loss for the [energy]transition

We will see what will happen to this reform. It is difficult to say at this stage. A large part of the work will be done in the ordinance that will follow and where the industry can make proposals to prevent the overloaded boat from scare away the few courageous who still dare to undertake in this country. As much as it is legitimate to ensure that the pollution of the subsoil is no longer appropriate today, going too far in increasing the number of investigation procedures will not allow geothermal energy to be developed to the level requested by the Programming. multi-year energy. The climatic stakes are enormous, geothermal energy only weighs about 0.3% of the renewable heat which itself represents 20% of the heat produced annually in France. We can measure the way that remains to be covered. Geothermal energy can bring so much to help the ecological transition, a theme around which so much has been communicated in recent years to the point of having given its name to a ministry. It can not only take a very large part of the production of fossil energy, but it can also create new jobs in many industrial and agrifood sectors where heat represents a major expenditure item.

Lithium production, a collateral victim

Another emerging sector is also likely to suffer from these constraints, and that is the production of lithium. It is a very promising sector, several projects led by French players are being tested. The quantities available in the waters of certain French regions are gigantic and given that lithium must be extracted at rather low temperatures, the marriage of reason between geothermal energy and lithium seems quite natural. We have not yet discussed the instructions for this new type of permit with the public authorities, we know that this will pose problems with the need to superimpose mining titles which will not necessarily have the same perimeter or the same timelines… a real headache ahead.

Not to mention the decline in the workforce in the public service does not help to arrange our affairs, we will have to know how to wait a few long months or even a few years before putting geothermal power stations into service.

In Germany, big ambitions for the production of geothermal lithium have made it possible to mobilize large amounts of funding, exploration permits are flourishing at a speed that makes you dream on the other side of the Rhine. Or Serbia, a small country where the development of geothermal heat is one of the government’s priorities, where the length of time it takes to obtain exploration permits is counted in weeks. We don’t even dare to think about it …

If our leaders wish to reindustrialize the country and strongly develop renewable energies, we must then equip the public authorities with more efficient and flexible tools than those which currently exist. A true Marshall Plan for renewable energies should spur actions that would allow the development of new industrial areas and give hope to an increasingly worried youth and hard hit by the health crisis that has been raging for a year. This crisis had at least the advantage of highlighting the fragility of countries, such as France, which have strongly deindustrialised during the last decades.

It is time to take the turn to find the trajectory we have lost and not push back our 2030 targets to 2050, because when we reach 2050, we will push them back to 2060, etc… until!

Source: Transitions Energies