No Canadian premier has been more vocal than François Legault in expressing his impatience toward the Trudeau government as it struggles to bring an end to rail blockades erected in solidarity with British Columbia Indigenous chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink.
The Quebec Premier’s frustration stems not just from the blockades’ current impact on his province’s economy. With each day the protests have dragged on, Mr. Legault has watched hopes recede for a massive liquified natural-gas plant in Quebec’s Saguenay region.
The chill in Canada’s resource sector caused by blockades and last week’s cancellation of the Frontier oil sands development by Teck Resources Ltd. could signal the death knell for Énergie Saguenay’s proposed LNG facility, and a 750-kilometre natural-gas pipeline sponsored by Gazoduc Inc. that would cross northern Quebec from the Ontario border.
Mr. Legault has touted both projects – which would represent a combined investment of about $14-billion – as a boon to Quebec’s economy that would help the province close its wealth gap with Ontario, and contribute to the fight against climate change by displacing coal consumption in Europe and Asia, the export markets targeted by Énergie Saguenay.
The main promoters of the projects are U.S. venture capitalist and billionaire Jim Breyer, an early investor in Facebook, and Jim Illich, a former Betchel Corp. executive, who oversaw the U.S. engineering giant’s LNG and oil and gas operations before retiring in 2012. The project still needs to attract additional investors, however. And that is getting harder by the day.
After meeting with Mr. Illich in Montreal in January, Mr. Legault tweeted that Énergie Saguenay would create 4,000 construction jobs and 250 permanent jobs with salaries of more than $100,000, and would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 28 million tonnes a year.
“If we succeed in replacing some of these coal-based generating plants in Europe and Asia with liquified natural gas, we will reduce emissions. That will help the planet,” Mr. Legault told Quebec’s National Assembly in early February. A week later, also in the legislature, Quebec Energy Minister Jonatan Julien called the project “economically and environmentally virtuous.”
That, however, was just as protests popped up across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The protests, including an continuing rail blockade on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve south of Montreal, have complicated the path forward for Énergie Saguenay. That has led to a more conciliatory tone from the Premier as he attempts to win Indigenous support in the province.
Last week, Mr. Legault insisted for the first time that the LNG project needs to attract not just investors, but also obtain “social licence” from Indigenous communities. That was after the Atikamekw Council of Wemotaci, one of the Indigenous communities whose territory the pipeline would cross, said it had not granted consent to the project. Members of the community were among protesters who last month erected a barricade blocking the Canadian National Railway tracks in Quebec’s Mauricie region.
Opponents of the gas pipeline and LNG facility have challenged Mr. Legault’s assertions regarding GHG reductions from the project, noting that the extraction of Western Canadian natural gas by hydraulic fracturing to supply Énergie Saguenay would generate 7.8 million tonnes of GHG emissions annually.
“Whether it be oil, coal or natural gas, hydrocarbons are hydrocarbons and must stay in the ground,” Manon Massé, Leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire, said last month. Her party and the Parti Québécois oppose the LNG project, which they argue would endanger beluga whales in the Saguenay River Fjord.
“There are dogmatic people who are against the replacement of oil and coal by natural gas,” Mr. Legault said last week, in response to Ms. Massé and Quebec’s powerful environmental movement. “I think it’s good for the planet. We need to be open to the possibility that natural gas becomes a transition fuel that replaces coal and nuclear facilities in Europe and Asia.”
Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) is scheduled to begin public hearings on the LNG complex on March 16. In January, the federal Impact Assessment Agency invited public comments on the Gazoduc pipeline, which will be one of the first projects to face scrutiny under the new environmental assessment process put in place after last year’s adoption of Bill C-69, which was widely opposed by the oil and gas industry, as well as by provincial governments in Alberta and Quebec.
In documents filed with the federal assessment agency, Gazoduc states that its project was “designed to be compatible with provincial, Canadian and international energy and climate policies,” and “will facilitate the replacement of energy sources that emit more GHGs and will serve as a catalyst in expanding international trade for Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Canada.”
Mr. Legault, who, in 2018, earned the enmity of many Albertans by calling their province’s oil “dirty,” now finds himself under fire at home for defending a fossil-fuel project. Call it karma.