PARIS — France’s highest court on Friday upheld a government ban on a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, in a defeat for a method that has revolutionized the oil and natural gas industry in the United States.
The Constitutional Council ruled against a challenge by Schuepbach Energy, an American company, whose exploration permits were revoked after the French Parliament banned the practice.
The method, known informally as fracking, pumps water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into shale formations deep underground to liberate trapped oil and natural gas deposits. The success of the technique over the last decade has led the United States to now claim to be 87 percent self-sufficient in gas.
Environmental concerns, particularly worries about the danger to water supplies, have slowed adoption of the practice in Europe, and the center-right government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy passed a law prohibiting it in 2011.
Schuepbach Energy had claimed that the law violated its rights, unfairly singled out fracking and was unconstitutional. The court rejected those arguments.
The ruling was a victory for President François Hollande, who has tread a careful path on fracking, partly because he wants to maintain the support of the Greens party going into elections next year.
“This law has been contested several times,” Mr. Hollande said on Friday in a speech after the decision. “It is now beyond dispute.”
Mr. Hollande held out a small hope for the industry, however, noting that the law “only prohibits recovering shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, it does not prevent research on other techniques.”
In addition to France, Bulgaria has banned fracking. Britain has allowed modest experiments, though those have met with public discontent. Industry hopes that Germany, which decided to end its atomic power after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, would be receptive to fracking have also met with disappointment.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted to tighten the rules on fracking, giving initial approval to a measure to require in-depth environmental impact studies on all such projects.
Attempts to reach Schuepbach Energy, a company based in Dallas that is not listed on any stock exchange, were unsuccessful. A company Web site says it is “under construction.” An e-mail message to the company did not receive an immediate response.
Jean-Louis Schilansky, president of the Union Française des Industries Pétrolières, a French oil and natural gas industry lobby, said there was no point in continuing the fight on legal grounds.
“The moment the highest court says it’s constitutional,” he said, “it’s constitutional.”
Mr. Schilansky noted that while the 2011 law was often represented as a simple ban on fracking, it also called for the creation of a national commission to determine whether fracking could be carried out in an environmentally safe manner.
“At the moment the whole of the knowledge is being taken from the United States,” he said. “Instead of that, we should be developing our own.”
The industry will now focus on getting the government to move forward with those experiments, he said, though he added, “Frankly, it’s very unlikely they’ll do anything before the next election.”
France is thought to have two major deposits of “unconventional” hydrocarbons: major oil deposits in the Paris basin and gas deposits in the southeastern part of the country.
The United States Energy Information Agency estimates that there are 137 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” gas in France, equivalent to decades worth of national consumption. Without significant exploration effort, though, those numbers are just guesswork, Mr. Schilansky said.
“Until we go there,” he said, “we really don’t know.”
As Drilling Practice Takes Off in U.S., Europe Proves Hesitant (October 10, 2013)
Europe Votes to Tighten Rules on Drilling Method (October 10, 2013)