The Quebec government is taking a tougher stance on controversial shale gas development in the province.
Until now a staunch supporter of shale gas extraction - with its potential bounty of jobs, economic development and lucrative royalties - the government of Liberal Premier Jean Charest appears to be wavering in the wake of a report Friday of a gas leak at one of the test wells.
For months, provincial ministers have played down concerns expressed by residents and environmentalists about the extraction technology known as "fracking" - the fracturing of layers of shale with a high-pressure blast of water and chemicals to free up the natural gas. One minister even scoffed that cows give off more greenhouse gas than shale gas wells.
Opponents say there are many documented instances of contaminated drinking water, damage to farmland and other fallout from fracking operations in the United States. They have called for a moratorium on the Quebec development.
On Friday, Mr. Charest and Environment Minister Pierre Arcand hardened their tone on shale gas, signaling they are rethinking the government's official policy.
"There will be shale gas exploration and extraction on the condition that it can be done correctly. If not, there won't be any," Mr. Charest told reporters at a Liberal caucus gathering in Lac-Beauport.
Mr. Arcand went further. "The industry is not in control of the situation," he said, adding that he is "extremely concerned by what is happening."
A gas leak at a test well in Leclercville, southwest of Quebec City, was reported on Friday. Mr. Arcand said environmental inspectors will be sent to all 29 exploration wells in the province.
Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc. spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said the company's well in Leclercville had not been experiencing a "gas leak," but rather a "surface casing vent flow."
That is a "relatively common issue in gas development - shale or conventional. Industry manages it through vents on wells and regular monitoring of wells," she said. "In Leclercville, we are doing some remedial work to try to stop the gas flow."
Michael Binnion, chief executive officer of Calgary-based Questerre Energy Corp. - a key player in Quebec's shale gas sector - said this latest episode in the shale gas controversy shows that more work needs to be done to explain the industry and the technology.
"I think it's another demonstration of how poorly understood our industry is," he said in an interview. "There is a lack of an ability to put these emissions in the right context. It's well known in environmental reports that these levels of emissions are part of the process."
Oil-and-gas drilling on the scale of the shale gas exploration is new to the province, which sits above vast deposits of natural gas.
Mr. Charest stopped short of saying he now favours a moratorium and said the next step is to study the recommendations in a report from the province's environmental-impact assessment agency, expected at the end of February.
With files from Nathan VanderKlippe in Calgary