* New code to go through parliament in spring 2014
* Aims to simplify permit-granting procedures
* Public, environment groups to be given more say
By Michel Rose
PARIS, Dec 10 France hopes a revamp of its
mining regulations unveiled on Tuesday will reconcile demands
for stricter environmental rules with the interests of oil, gas
and commodities firms who complain about an unstable legal
framework, ministers said.
The much-delayed reform of the mining code, set to pass
through parliament next spring, has exposed divisions in the
government between those pushing for a revival of French
industry and advocates of tougher green policies.
"Today's mining code, as we have inherited it from the 19th
century, does not satisfy anybody, neither environment groups
nor companies wishing to exploit our mining resources," Industry
Minister Arnaud Montebourg told a news conference.
He was flanked by Environment Minister Philippe Martin, who
said the government had let Thierry Tuot, the author of the nine
volumes and more than 700 articles of the new code, work
independently without government interference.
"It's now up to the government to arbitrate," Martin said,
adding he aimed to present the reform to the cabinet in the
first quarter of next year before sending it to parliament.
Tuot said the new code aims to simplify the procedure to
grant permits by centralising the process at ministerial level
rather than letting local prefects decide.
The new granting process would also involve a public
consultation, but would make legal challenges based on technical
procedure flaws impossible after judicial approval.
"It's better to spend one year discussing with the public
and be sure everybody is satisfied with the economic and social
compromise, than do everything in three months and then spend 10
years in a legal guerrilla (war)," Tuot told reporters.
The reform also aims to give a bigger share of tax revenue
from extraction to local authorities. In France, the state, not
landowners, owns underground resources.
France has never been a major oil and gas producer and
produced about 16,000 barrels of oil per day in 2012, or about 1
percent of national needs. But with oil prices at high levels
above $100, some fields in the Paris basin or southern France
have become potentially profitable.
However, France's decision to ban the hydraulic fracking
technology used to explore for shale oil and gas in 2011, and a
freeze of drilling permits on French soil, has deterred foreign
investors in the oil and gas sector.
Last month, a request by U.S. firm Hess Corp to
explore for shale oil and gas in the Paris basin was rejected by
the government despite assurances it would not use fracking.
The fracking technique, which involves pumping water and
chemicals underground, was banned under the previous government
due to concerns over the environmental impact including possible
contamination of groundwater.
The ban was upheld by the country's constitutional court
earlier this year, after a challenge by another U.S-based
company, Schuepbach Energy, which held two permits that were
"Will this new mining code restore trust in the government
among foreign investors? They were really badly shaken by the
decision on Hess," said Philippe Auzas, a lawyer at Bonna Auzas
Avocats advising oil and gas firms in France.
"The industry considers it is treated with hostility, with
the feeling that a confusion between conventional and
unconventional oil and gas is being deliberately instilled,"
Apart from the oil and gas sector, the reform of the mining
code is also aimed at facilitating the development of mining
projects in France to help secure supply of mineral resources
such as rare earths that are seen as strategic.