In most places west of Manitoba, the arrival of yet another oil or gas drilling rig is cause for little notice or concern. In Quebec, a half dozen gas wells and the potential of hundreds more may be about to set off a new kind of identity crisis.
Quebec has long nurtured an image as a green-energy titan, relying on hydro and sneering at those other energy producers in the West, with their smelly, polluting oil and gas.
The image is in for a rough reexamination this fall as Environment Minister Pierre Arcand and deputy premier and Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau announced on Sunday that the government will launch an aggressive schedule of environmental review and legislative overhaul that could pave the way for a new natural-gas industry.
Thousands of metres beneath Quebec's fertile and heavily populated St. Lawrence River valley, geologists believe up to 50 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves may be locked in hard shale. The rough preliminary estimate would place the field on a short list of the largest of its kind in Canada.
Before Quebec has even drafted its first oil-and-gas law to regulate the industry, exploration companies have obtained 600 permits and are drilling a half dozen wells to test the viability of Quebec's gas reserves.
Shale gas would be the first major foray into fossil fuels in a province where the industry mainly pierces public consciousness for high prices at the pump, pollution, greenhouse gases or some distant environmental disaster.
"There is an historic attachment and identity tied up with Hydro-Québec because it was one of the first true economic engines in the province. Compared to that legacy, oil and gas companies trigger considerable distrust with the way they act around the world," said environmentalist Daniel Breton.
At Sunday's unveiling of the province's plan, Mr. Arcand and Ms. Normandeau were booed and shouted down by several dozen protesters. An aide was forced to plead for calm and respect.
"Citizens have expressed their concerns, and we've heard them," Ms. Normandeau said over a chorus of catcalls. "We have the responsibility to exploit such potential wealth ... but we will be putting primary emphasis on the environment and on ensuring the social acceptance of any development."
Many of the protesters were residents of Saint-Marc-sur-Richelieu, a small town about a 40-minute drive south of Montreal, where a mix of recently landed commuters and farmers have successfully stalled an early attempt at exploration by an Australian company.
Pierre Batellier, a university lecturer and leader of the local anti-drilling movement, said the town's 2,000 residents are divided between people who welcome lease payments from drilling companies and other potential economic development and those who say Quebec is rushing into the unknown.
"There's not a lot of tension in town, but it's starting to grow as houses become harder to sell," said Mr. Batellier, who teaches sustainable development at HEC Montréal, a business school.
Any oil and gas exploration would likely cause controversy in Quebec, but the "unconventional" methods used to reach shale gas promise to fuel opposition.
Exploration companies reach the gas through a recent innovation in drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Thousands of litres of water, sand and chemicals are blasted into the rock to break it up and release the gas.
Several communities in Pennsylvania, where drilling is running a frenetic pace, have complained of severe water contamination while New York state has put a hold on drilling. The industry insists the problems are isolated.
Quebec environmental groups and municipal associations have asked for a moratorium on drilling until more questions are answered.
The Quebec Oil and Gas Association - created just last year and led by former Hydro-Québec president André Caillé - has predicted the industry could create thousands of jobs and drive down the price of natural gas, which is nearly twice as expensive in Quebec as it is in Alberta.
The province and industry have promised a major public-relations campaign this fall to tout the benefits of gas exploration while environmental groups say they will mobilize opposition.
"This fall will be the hottest in Quebec on the energy file since the 1960s" when hydro installations were nationalized, Mr. Breton said.
The province has asked the environmental review agency to complete its work by Feb. 4. New legislation promises to be in place by the end of the spring session.