Outrage over hunt for oil in Parisian suburb

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The Independent Online

A smartly dressed blue scarecrow stands in the middle of a large ploughed field. Bungalows and trees fade into the distance. Just beyond the misty horizon, the southern suburbs of Paris begin, as suddenly as a concrete wall. It seems like an unlikely spot to strike oil.

A smartly dressed blue scarecrow stands in the middle of a large ploughed field. Bungalows and trees fade into the distance. Just beyond the misty horizon, the southern suburbs of Paris begin, as suddenly as a concrete wall. It seems like an unlikely spot to strike oil.

But if Esso has its way, this bleakly charming place could become part of Paris, Texas, or as the residents say with a shudder, Kuwait-sur-Seine.

An area of more than 75 square miles of fields, woods and suburbs, just south of Versailles, has been identified by geologists as a sizable potential oilfield in a country which has almost no oil of its own.

Unlike Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies, the residents are far from delighted at the discovery of black gold under their fields and gardens. They depend on oil to drive to work, or to operate their tractors, or to heat their homes, but they would rather the oil came from somewhere else, from the Middle East, say, or the North Sea. They have declared war on the French government and Esso and plan to tie up the oil-prospecting - which was due to begin last week - in legal and constitutional wrangles which could last for years.

The row is complicated by two factors. In France, the subsoil, below the depth of two metres (6ft 6in) belongs to the French state, not to the owner of the land. Individual "mineral rights" do not exist. The residents complain that they have everything to lose from oil exploration and nothing to gain.

Secondly, Esso's intended oilfield, first identified five years ago, lies in the middle of a protected area, the natural park of the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse, which checks the suburban sprawl of Paris to the south-west. Since they are forbidden by park regulations to paint their homes in bright colours, the residents wonder how the government can permit an oil-exploration derrick 120 ft high? The answer is that France is as desperate to strike oil - any oil - as the British are to produce a little wine. There are already a handful of scattered oil-wells operating in the Ile-de-France, south-east of Paris. There is a small oilfield south of Bordeaux. But France has never produced more than three million tonnes of oil a year. The country consumes 80 million tonnes a year.

With the price of crude at record levels, Parisian officialdom is not about to change its mind about prospecting in natural parks. A couple of years ago, such was the desperation of France to have some oil of its own, an exploration rig was set up outside the Ministry of Justice in the heart of Paris.

Chantal Hurard, a 36-year-old mother of four, whose home lies a few yards from the first proposed exploration site, is one of the leaders of the anti-oilfield pressure group, which wittily calls itself Organisation pour la Protection de L'environnement du Parc, or OPEP. (Wittily because, in French, these are the same initials as OPEC, the oil producers' cartel).

Isn't she being selfish; unpatriotic, even? "Let's be serious," she said. "France is not Saudi Arabia. We are talking about finding a few drops of oil here. Is it worth despoiling a natural park for that?

"They tell us oil wells are not intrusive these days but I've been to one in the Essonne [the next département] and it's appalling. There would also be lorries and pipelines. And we all know consuming oil pollutes the environment. Wouldn't the money be better spent researching alternative energy?"

Oil prospecting could start tomorrow if the owner of the land chosen for the first exploratory well would allow it. Robert Delalande - well named because his family has farmed this land for 500 years - refuses. The prospecting company employed by Esso has offered only a £4,000 lump sum for access (even if oil is found). But Mr Delalande, 72, insists that money is not the problem.

"I can remember when 200 people lived in this commune," he said. "There are now 10,000. Most of the newcomers have no idea who the Delalandes are and how long we've been here.

"I'm not interested in oil. I'm a farmer. My son is a farmer. I wish they'd spend money on ways to convert our cereals into bio-fuels. Then this land could be farmed for another 500 years."

The Canadian-owned prospecting company, Vermilion, says the opposition is based on misconceptions about the nuisances caused by oil drilling and extraction. Modern methods, they insist, are virtually free of pollution and noise.

Millions of francs have already been spent on exploration. And Esso and the government insist they will not walk away from the Vallée de Chevreuse. The first studies suggest that Mr Delalande's scarecrow may be standing on top of one of the biggest oil deposits yet to be found in France.

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