I. Background

The French energy sector has been weakened by the war in Ukraine. This is reflected in higher electricity, gas and oil prices. In response, France has decided to accelerate its energy transition. Several measures have been taken to break France's dependence on Russian energy: revision of the marginal cost principle governing the European electricity market; decarbonization of gas through biogas; deployment of renewable energies; and diversification of gas supplies.

This last objective is designed to offset the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and accelerate the commissioning of LNG terminals capable of importing liquefied natural gas (LNG). To this end, the government has accepted the proposal to set up a new LNG import point on the French coast, and more specifically in the port of Le Havre, using a floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU).

II. Project challenges

Totalenergies' Cap Ann FSRU vessel arrived in the port of Le Havre (Seine Maritime) on Monday, September 18, 2023. It will be berthed at the Bougainville Sud quay in the port, alongside Haropa's existing Ro-Ro terminal, and will remain there for 5 years. TotalEnergies will install and operate the FSRU, while GRTgaz will build and operate the pipeline connecting it to the gas transmission network. With the Le Havre LNG terminal, there are now five LNG import terminals in France: two at Fos-sur-Mer, one at Montoir de Bretagne, one at Dunkirk and one at Le Havre.

The use of a floating terminal makes it possible to anticipate and mitigate a sharp drop or interruption in gas supply. It will operate by importing LNG from the United States and Africa. LNG tankers will unload their liquefied natural gas onto the FSUR vessel, which will then be processed on site and fed back into domestic gas pipelines. The vessel will enable up to five billion m3 of gas a year to be fed into the national grid, i.e. 60% of Russian gas imports in 2021 and 10% of France's annual consumption.

III. Environmental impact

The port of Le Havre was chosen for this project, firstly because it was the only location with a significant transport network and available routing capacity. Secondly, following an assessment of the project's environmental, societal and technological risk impacts, Bougainville Sud was identified as the site where these impacts are the lowest, and where there will be no significant impact on the environment. In fact, as the Seine-Maritime prefecture's press release states, "the characteristics of the port of Le Havre make this the only location in France with a significant transport network and available routing capacity".

"The port of Le Havre was chosen because it meets the criteria for the success of this project: infrastructure of the right size, availability to accommodate the FSRU and the LNG carriers that will feed it, recognized resources and operational know-how, and proximity to the national gas transmission network enabling rapid connection of the terminal to the grid. TotalEnergies will thus be helping to increase the country's non-Russian gas import capacity, in conjunction with GRTgaz and Haropa" (excerpts from the Seine Maritime Prefecture press release).

IV. Litigation

From the announcement of the project to the present day, the SFRU has been the subject of several appeals by environmental associations. In July, the Rouen administrative court rejected 3 appeals lodged by the associations Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV) and France Nature Environnement (FNE). The court ruled that "the mooring and operation of a floating LNG terminal [...] do not constitute a 'project' within the meaning of the Environmental Code, insofar as they do not entail any physical modification of the landscape".

The fourth appeal dates to August 28, 2023, when the associations appealed to the interim relief judge on the grounds that "the judge on the merits could not usefully rule before the installation came into service, scheduled for September 15, 2023", whereas "the damage likely to be caused to the environment by the execution of the decree is irreversible. The interim relief judge dismissed the appeal, ruling that "none of the grounds invoked against the order at issue is manifestly of such a nature as to create a serious doubt as to the legality of the Seine-Maritime prefect's order".

In short, while some see the SFRU as a necessary step in moving France away from its dependence on Russian gas, others believe that it runs counter to the ecological transition, given that the carbon footprint of LNG, which is composed of methane and often produced by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is 2.5 times higher than that of conventional natural gas.

The use of LNG terminals was enshrined in French law OI no. 2022-1158 of August 16, 2022, concerning emergency measures to protect purchasing power and secure the country's gas supply. To ensure that such projects are better aligned with environmental protection, this law requires a study to be carried out into the environmental impacts associated with the operation of a floating LNG terminal, particularly in terms of direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, damage to biodiversity and consumption of water and other natural resources (Article 30).