Special Report: Innovations and TerritoriesBy Christophe Briand
Discovered in 1951, the natural gas reservoir at Lacq (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) was at the origin of an inversion of the image of an energy that was then judged dirty and polluting. The Bearnese gas raised, from the very beginning, some environmental problems because of its chemical characteristics. The installation of an industrial complex downstream from the desulphurization factory, which belonged to the Société nationale des pétroles d’Aquitaine (SNPA), transformed the Lacq area into a development pole in an agricultural and rural area, where approximately 6000 people lived. But this mode of industrialization neglected the interferences between the chemical and metallurgical activities, and the environment of which they formed part. The local living conditions were upset by the factories, the wells and the drains which were sources of risks and harmful effects.
At the end of the 1950s, the industrialists and the authorities were not prepared to assume the human and natural consequences of such activities. A long period of becoming acquainted to harmful effects, ecological questioning and fighting led to the realisation by all the actors of the environmental issues at stake. In the middle of the 1970s, technical progress made by the SNPA and the local fear of the consequences of the reservoir’s exhaustion, caused a change in the perception of the environment in Béarn. From a geographical environment enclosing a chemical and metallurgical complex, it became a branch of industry able to take over from that complex, a means to solve the social crisis, for both Elf Aquitaine (later to become Total) and the local leaders. Since the end of the 1990s, the Pau-Lacq area has even sought to pioneer modes of sustainable cohabitation between polluting industries and their local environment.