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Politics PQ puts shale-gas development in St. Lawrence Valley on hold indefinitely

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet.

JACQUES BOISSINOT/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Parti Québécois government is keeping its election promise by introducing an indefinite moratorium on shale-gas development along the densely populated St. Lawrence Valley.

When the National Assembly resumes sitting next week, Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet will table legislation that will ban the awarding of exploration licences and suspend those already granted.

The moratorium won't be lifted until a full environmental assessment can be completed on whether shale gas can be safely developed without posing a threat to residents, a process that may take at least two years.

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"The moratorium will be enforced until the National Assembly has adopted legislation that will define how we manage and dispose of shale gas," Mr. Blanchet said.

The minister explained that by the end of 2013, a strategic environmental assessment committee made up mainly of scientists and university researchers will complete a total of 78 studies on several issues involving the exploration and extraction of shale gas. He has ordered that all the studies be handed over to the province's environmental assessment board, which will conduct a full public inquiry to determine whether to proceed and, if so, under which conditions.

The PQ minority government will be banking heavily on public opinion to persuade the opposition parties to support the bill. Exploration projects undertaken by several companies were strongly contested by angry residents and environmental groups over fears that the drilling and fracturing process used to extract the gas, which is deeply embedded in the shale sediments, could contaminate the drinking water in their communities.

Environmental groups such as Équiterre immediately applauded the government's decision, arguing that a moratorium was needed to fully examine whether current extraction techniques were secure and to evaluate the need to develop a fossil-fuel industry in Quebec.

The government's decision, however, strikes a blow at the industry's efforts to explore what it considers a potentially profitable energy resource.

The Quebec Oil and Gas Association refused to comment on the government's proposed moratorium. The industry has urged the government in the past to allow it to carry on with exploration to evaluate the gas reserves and determine the costs and techniques needed to extract the resource. The industry has argued that it would take at least two years to complete the exploration process. The moratorium extends the delay.

It is estimated that Quebec consumes about $2-billion a year of natural gas, all of it imported. The industry contends that Quebec could become self-sufficient in natural gas.

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However, the PQ legislation, if adopted, will do nothing to change the current situation, in which exploration is at a standstill. Regulations restricting exploration are already in place. Furthermore, natural gas prices have plummeted, making it too costly for companies to invest. But the industry believes the economic conditions could change quickly. When gas prices eventually rise, several projects could become feasible again.

Mr. Blanchet said that while the moratorium was needed for shale-gas exploration near populated areas, that was not the case for developing the oil deposits on the remote Anticosti Island in eastern Quebec. The same controversial drilling and fracturing process used for shale gas would be needed to extract the oil. Yet Mr. Blanchet said that, because the island was sparsely populated, the risks weren't as great.

"The Quebec government is not opposed to producing oil. On the contrary, we support the initiative," he said, adding that a bill aimed at regulating oil exploration and production in the province will also be tabled soon.

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