The ongoing controversy over the exploitation of shale gas deposits in Quebec came to a head last week. On Tuesday, the prominent environmental organization Équiterre released a report that claimed developing a shale gas industry would make it difficult for Quebec to meet it's existing greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Équiterre called on the province to institute a moratorium on further exploration projects until it concludes comprehensive studies of the potential environmental, health and economic impacts of shale gas exploitation.
Équiterre's call for a moratorium echoes similar demands from the opposition and community groups. Earlier this month, Parti Québecois Leader Pauline Marois pressed for an immediate moratorium on shale gas drilling in the province. And, at a public information meeting in Bécancour, residents living near shale gas exploration sites demanded the projects be shut down until environmental assessment studies are completed.
The Charest government has ordered the province's Office of Environmental Public Hearings ( BAPE) to conduct an assessment of the shale gas industry and its potential impacts, but it has repeatedly refused calls for a moratorium on exploratory drilling while the study is underway.
The consensus in the Quebec opinion pages is that, so long as Quebeckers continue to consumer electricity at the current rate, the exploitation of shale gas and other home-grown energy resources is fairly inevitable. But some pundits criticized the Charest government's full-speed-approach to developing the industry.
In his Journal de Montreal column, Joseph Facal contended that, because Quebeckers " consume much more energy than we produce," it makes sense to "correctly exploit our own resources instead of spending money importing [oil and natural gas]from outside the province." Mr. Facal did not, however, agree with how the provincial government had handled its foray into shale gas so far. He accused the Charest government of "improvising" its shale gas strategy, which, he argued, has resulted in a level of "distrust" among the voting public on the issue that will likely be "very difficult to overcome."
La Presse's Francois Cardinal agreed with Mr. Facal's contention that, as voracious energy consumers, Quebeckers " can't oppose everything." Mr. Cardinal argued that unless Hydro Quebec increases the price of electricity in the province, energy conservation programs will produce only "modest" results. "With our ridiculously low electricity prices […]the province has no choice but to propose new large scale energy projects," he wrote.
In an op-ed published in La Tribune, University of Sherbrooke Business professor, Luc Godbout, contended that the only way for Quebeckers to decide whether they support the development of a shale gas industry is for the government to provide a clear cost-benefit analysis that considers the industry's environmental and economic impacts. "It seems simple," he wrote, "but it is the fundamental element that is missing from the current public debate."
Column of the Week
Le Devoir's Josée Boileau fact-checks provincial Natural Resource Minister Nathalie Normandeau's claim that shale gas exploration is nothing new and that the government has been openly talking about this possibility for years. Ms. Normandeau has repeatedly invoked Quebec's Energy Strategy (made public in 2006) in her justification of the development of the shale gas industry. However, as Ms. Boileau discovers upon combing through the document, "nowhere in its 119 pages does the Energy Strategy include the phrase 'shale gas,' or even the word 'shale.' " Ms. Boileau judiciously admits that the document does contain references to natural gas and exploratory projects, "but the emphasis is resolutely placed on hydrocarbon research in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence."
Ms. Boileau goes on to contend that "it is not surprising" that the public is unhappy with the limited mandate the government has given to the Office of Environmental Public Hearings "Shale gas exploitation in Quebec is being treated as a sectoral project, when in fact it involves major social and environmental issues" Ms. Boileau wrote, "and any responsible government would address these issues with the electorate."