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What do we know about French oil major Total?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: UK fracking’s latest backer uncovered

Total's chartered ship, the Erika, sank in 1999, leading to one of France's worst environmental disasters

Total’s chartered ship, the Erika, sank in 1999, leading to one of France’s worst environmental disasters

By Sophie Yeo

French oil company Total SA announced today that it has invested £30 million in the UK’s shale gas industry, taking advantage of reserves of shale gas across the Channel after the technology was banned on its own soil.

Total is one of the six companies that make up the “Big Oil” group, and its vote of confidence in the profitability of the UK shale sector is likely to prove a major boost.

It is a boost that will be needed if the technology – which involves fracturing the earth in order to withdraw deeply buried reserves of shale gas – is to overcome the tide of anger directed at it by environmentalists, who say that extraction of this new fossil fuel is incompatible with the UK’s legally binding emissions targets.

Like most oil companies, Total’s environmental record is far from flawless. RTCC takes a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of fracking’s latest fan.

The Good

Total established the Total Foundation in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio, and extended its scope in 2008. Armed with a five-year action plan and a €50 million budget, the Foundation works across culture, community and the environment to provide funding for new research.

They are particularly keen on marine biodiversity, and in recent years have provided funds to help monitor elephant seals, sperm whales and green sea turtles.

The Bad

Total was held responsible for one of France’s worst environmental disasters to date, when a ship that they had chartered split off the Bay of Biscay in stormy waters, spilling roughly 20,000 tonnes of oil.

The disaster spoiled 400km of coastline around Brittany and killed up to 100,000 birds. The company was found guilty of negligence and fined €375,000 and ordered to pay nearly €200 million to those who were impacted by the spill.

The oil giant tried to appeal against the charges, saying that they were not responsible for the state of the 24-year old ship because they didn’t own it, but a French court upheld the original decision in a 2012 appeal hearing.

The Ugly

As the fifth largest publically traded oil and gas company in the world, Total is responsible for the emissions of a supreme amount of carbon dioxide, which is the prime cause of climate change. The company operates in over 130 countries, and mines 2.3 million barrels of oil equivalent every day.

In the UN’s major climate science report, the IPCC, scientists set a ‘carbon budget’ of how much the world can emit if temperatures are to stay beneath the politically agreed limit of 2C.

If the world has a good change of sticking to this, only 20% of the world’s total fossil fuel reserves can be burnt, according to a report by Carbon Tracker. As of December 2012, Total had 11.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent – estimated to be able to emit around 20GtCO2.

The IPCC has projected that if the world is to have a 66% chance of staying below 2C, only 1009GtCO2 can be emitted from now on.

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