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The Hydro-Québec Eastmain project will add 8.7 terawatt-hours of electricity production. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Hydro-Québec Eastmain project will add 8.7 terawatt-hours of electricity production. (JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Natural gas glut, not PQ, threatens Quebec’s shale sector Add to ...

Lucien Bouchard, president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, has been in a lather ever since the province’s new Natural Resource Minister, Martine Ouellet, signalled that, were it left to her, she would ban hydraulic fracking.

Ms. Ouellet toned down her discourse on Monday as she ventured into the association’s annual conference, an unfriendly territory. She spoke of the need for an “open and frank dialogue” with industry. But as Quebec is more inclined to develop oil wells than gas wells in its bid to become self-sufficient, her previous words still resonate loud and clear.

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“I cannot see the day when the extraction of natural gas by the fracking method can be done in a safe way,” Ms. Ouellet said right after she was sworn in.

This “over my dead body” attitude from a former engineer and environmentalist made Natural Resource Minister is emblematic of what former Parti Québécois premier Bouchard refers to as the “new religion” of Quebec. In a province where the gas industry’s first and often tactless developments have divided the population, gas wells – and even hydroelectric dams – have come to symbolize man’s self-destructive appetite for energy, at the expense of land, water and air.

It is a fine debate. Yet for all its sociological, environmental and economic considerations, it is somewhat vain. The valve on Quebec’s gas industry is shut for a foreseeable future that extends well beyond the current ban on gas exploration – which will last until environmental studies are completed, by 2014. Blame it on the shale gas boom in the United States. Blame it on the low gas prices that have ensued.

And the consequences of these depressed prices are felt not only by the province’s nascent gas industry, which had already drilled before the ban some 30 wells in Quebec in the hopes of creating a 5,000- to 19,000-job industry.

They also hurt the venerable Hydro-Québec, the state-owned electricity producer that has seen its export revenues since 2008 melt even as it is pumping more electricity into the northeastern U.S., its main export market. Gas-powered thermal electricity plants are heating up Hydro-Québec’s competition.

The price of natural gas has rebounded in recent months after it cratered in April under $2 (U.S.) per million British thermal units (BTU). As gas prices rise while the mercury falls on the eve of the winter heating season, it now trades close to $3.50 per million BTU in New York. However, Quebec’s gas industry estimated in earlier public hearings that the price of gas needs to trade between $5 and $6 for it to cover its production and delivery costs.

Even if gas-powered plants replace coal plants, even if diesel trucks are converted to gas, it will likely take a decade before the increased demand allows the price of natural gas to rebound significantly – it spiked at close to $9 in 2008. Quebec’s main gas distributor, Gaz Métro, expects prices to hover around $5 for the next 10 years. Jean-Thomas Bernard, guest lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of economics and an energy expert, thinks the depressed prices could even last 15 years.

This presents a headache for Hydro-Québec, which is already swarming with electricity surpluses as the recession weighs on industrial demand, especially from the pulp and paper mills that are in the midst of a structural downturn. And the problem will only be made worse as the state-owned electricity producer brings new capacity into service. The complex project Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert, which includes the construction of two plants, four dams and the diversion of the Rupert River in the James Bay region, will add 8.7 terawatt-hours of electricity production. The Romaine hydroelectric complex in the Côte-Nord region will add another eight TWh on average a year.

Hydro-Québec‘s electricity exports have steadily gone up since 2007 to 26.8 TWh from 19.6 TWh. Yet as electricity prices have fallen while the Canadian dollar has shot up, the revenues the state producer collects from these out-of-province sales have gone down – although they slightly rebounded in 2011. The trend has continued in the first quarter of 2012: The year-over-year exports shortfall accounts for Hydro-Québec’s 28 per cent drop in revenue and 18 per cent reduction in profit.

And with any fall in Hydro-Québec’s profits comes a reduction to the dividend it pays the government, as 75 per cent of its profit are funnelled to Quebec. To paraphrase the title of an acclaimed Louis Bélanger film, Quebec is suffering a severe case of “Gaz Bar Blues.”

So as Western Canadian energy producers are lamenting the surge in U.S. shale gas and oil production, which are threatening their exports south of the border, this time around, they will find a sympathetic ear in Quebec.

Follow on Twitter: @S_Cousineau

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