The provincial government held a series of public hearings on shale gas drilling from Monday to Wednesday night in collaboration with Quebec’s top natural gas and oil companies. Concerns about the social and environmental cost of the controversial energy extraction method have been mounting amongst Quebeckers in the lead up to the hearings.
Experts from nine provincial ministries, as well as representatives from Gaz Métro and the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, spoke about the shale gas industry and fielded questions from the public at the sessions, which were held Monday and Tuesday in the town of Saint-Hyacinthe, east of Montreal.
Opposition politicians have criticized Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government for going forward with shale gas extraction before conducting research into the procedure.
Martine Ouellet, Parti Québécois MNA for Vachon in Longueuil, told The Daily, “The Quebec government does not have studies on how this will affect pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.”
“That’s the problem: there is a lack of information,” she continued. “If you look at the hearings, they kept repeating, ‘We don’t have that information, we don’t have that information, we need more information.’ There are no studies. The public has not been consulted enough, and what we really don’t understand is why the government is listening so closely to the industry and not to citizens.”
Extraction of shale gas, a previously inaccessible type of natural gas found in shale rock deep below the surface of the earth, has taken off recently in Quebec due to technological advances and a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Companies drill a well to access the gas, into which they inject millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure, creating fissures that open the gas flow.
Questions remain about how drilling will affect Quebec’s plans to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Industry and government representatives have marketed shale gas as a “cleaner” fuel. However, Natural Resources Canada has warned the federal government that fracking could increase carbon dioxide emissions, interfere with wildlife habitats, and deplete freshwater resources.
In the U.S., shale gas drilling has caused water contamination so severe that people living close to drilling sites could actually light their tap water on fire.
Some companies, such as Talisman Energy and Junex, have begun testing the viability of the gas reserves in the St. Lawrence Valley, and so far the government has issued 600 drilling permits. The province has ordered its environmental protection agency, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), to review the practice and to report to government officials by February.
However, critics say BAPE has not been given enough time to do a detailed study. A group of former BAPE members wrote an open letter published by the CBC last Friday, stating that the agency’s mandate “imposed constraints such that BAPE had neither the time nor the resources to stimulate rigorous and credible public debate.”
“Not only don’t we have enough time for proper study, but the documents are ridiculous,” said Kim Cornelissen, a spokesperson for the environmental group Jour de la Terre. “[In] examining shale gas we are not saying if it is good or not. We are saying we will do it, [but] how do we do it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
In a recent interview with the Gazette, Steven Guilbeault, deputy director of the environmental group Equiterre, wondered why the government was not taking more time before beginning drilling.
“There’s no rush. The gas is not going anywhere,” said Guilbeault. “It’s not going to evaporate. It’s not going to migrate to some other provinces or U.S. states. It’s going to go stay there. What’s wrong with taking six months, or a little bit more, to study this thoroughly?”
Cornelissen pointed to the close relationship between the provincial government and industry executives as a possible reason for the hurry.
“[Former Hydro-Québec president] André Caillé and other industry leaders [are] really close to the government, so they are in a really good place to say [to the government], ‘You know, we know what we are talking about.’ It’s like it’s between family,” said Cornelisson, who nevertheless remains optimistic about halting development.
“I think that the people are way wiser than this trick that says we must have shale gas. I don’t think it will work.”
There is now a petition before the National Assembly to ask for a moratorium on drilling. The next public shale gas hearings will take place in mid-November.