Quebec's Environment Minister says the province could block a project to transport Alberta oil through Quebec if it is found to pose a serious environmental hazard.
Enbridge Inc. proposes to use a pipeline that currently runs through Quebec to transport Western Canadian crude from the oil sands to a Montreal refinery to gain access to the eastern market.
In an unexpected outburst on Wednesday, Environment Minister Daniel Breton responded to the project by saying this was the 50th anniversary of the election on the nationalization of hydro-electricity in Quebec and the province will never accept a project imposed on it by Ottawa and Alberta that it hasn't approved itself.
"What I see is Alberta wanting to transport its oil on our territory without our consent. … Are we masters of our own territory or not? " Mr. Breton said before heading into a Parti Québécois caucus meeting, without elaborating further.
Premier Pauline Marois's advisers, perhaps fearing the minister's comments would be interepreted as a declaration of war on Alberta and its oil industry, talked to Mr. Breton before holding a news conference.
Mr. Breton was an environmental activist opposed to the development of the Alberta oil sands before entering politics. When he spoke to the media later, his tone was considerably softer, saying the Quebec government will first demand to be kept informed before ruling on the project.
"They cannot go over our heads because it's on our territory and we have environmental reasons to make sure everything goes well," Mr. Breton said. "If it doesn't go well, we can't go ahead. If it goes well, we'll go ahead. But we need to have all the information."
Mr. Breton said that environmental concerns in Nebraska over the construction of a pipeline have stalled efforts by Alberta and Ottawa to export crude from the oil sands to the United States. And there's similar opposition to the construction of a pipeline through British Columbia to export Alberta oil to Asian markets. "Before they come east, we want a say over the matter," Mr. Breton said.
He said he is concerned an oil spill from an Enbridge pipeline in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2010 could repeat itself in the province. Alberta crude, he said, was found to be more corrosive on older pipelines and could result in spills.
The PQ government is juggling environmental concerns with the economic benefits Alberta crude would have in creating jobs in Montreal's depressed oil-refinery industry.
In an interview in the first week of November, Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said he has been "trying" to arrange a meeting with the PQ. But he expressed confidence that the company would be able to proceed there with little opposition, in part because of the jobs tied to refineries in the province that stand to benefit from using cheaper Western Canadian crude.
"So far Quebec's actually been pretty receptive … and obviously there's a lot of economic benefits to keeping the refineries in Quebec running," he said.
"Remember those refineries have high-priced feedstock right now," he said. Montreal refineries now import crude from places like the North Sea and offshore Africa, where oil sells for nearly $25 (U.S.) a barrel more than North American crude.
"Having cheaper feedstock and having Canadian crude to that market makes a lot of sense," he said. But, he acknowledged, "it's going to be like everything else today: We have to work through it and explain what we're doing. But I'm hopeful that we'll get support."
Mr. Breton said he will be meeting Mr. Monaco "pretty soon." Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet said she wants to be on hand to weigh the full impact of the project, arguing in favour of securing other supply sources for the province.
"There are economic advantages with respect to costs and it also represents an alternate source of supply. But we also have to examine the environmental impact. What kind of oil will be transported in the pipeline? Is it light crude? Will it be conventional oil or not? We are still waiting for answers," she said.
While the federal National Energy Board will hold public hearings on the project, Quebec said it will also undertake public consultations of its own but has yet to define the type of environmental review process it will initiate.