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Energy Resources

Before 1700 France, like most other European nations, relied on animals, windmills, and water mills to supply power, and wood was used as its common fuel. The Industrial Revolution called for more concentrated sources of energy, and France was among the countries with abundant coal resources. Coal became the principal fuel during the industrial expansion of the 19th century, and French coal-mining regions were the centers of heavy industry.

The coalfields of northern France, especially in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, were the most important ones at first and resulted in this region's becoming heavily industrialized. Although their reserves are largely depleted, these fields still account for about one fourth of France's coal production. Half of the national total comes from the fields of Lorraine, the north Paris Basin, and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais area, where coal is particularly important for the nation's steel industry.

The remainder of the nation's domestic coal production is provided by a number of minor fields in the central and southern regions and is used primarily to generate electricity. France imports more than half of its coal supply, principally from Germany, South Africa, and the United States.

The invention of the internal-combustion engine, and the consequent increase in the importance of petroleum as the primary fuel of the 20th century, eventually required France to import almost its entire supply. Minor production in Aquitaine and the Paris Basin accounts for less than 2 percent of its oil needs. France is also seriously deficient in natural gas, another hydrocarbon fuel of special value because it burns cleanly. The field in the Aquitaine Basin and other minor sources provide less than a third of the nation's needs. Most of France's imported natural gas comes from The Netherlands. The nation depends so heavily on imported fuels that as much as 65 percent of its total energy supply comes from other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Nigeria.
An imposing nuclear power plant produces electricity near Lyon. France is placing increasing emphasis on nuclear energy.

Because of its dangerously high dependence on imported energy, France has long sought to develop alternative sources that would be competitively priced and ensure greater energy independence. Most significant has been generation of electricity by nuclear power plants. In the 1990s there were more than 50 nuclear reactors in France capable of generating some 53,000 megawatts. France has been working to reduce its heavy dependence on imported energy sources. This nuclear program involves economic and environmental challenges, but the French are determined to attain greater self-sufficiency in energy. Nuclear plants appear presently to be the best way to accomplish this.