Quebec's natural gas industry is taking steps to win back support for its plan to tap the province's shale gas riches, but says it will take time and a strong effort to overcome widespread resistance and begin production.
Industry officials say they have learned from the pitched battles with environmentalists and citizens worried over the alleged health and environmental threats posed by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The technique uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals injected into shale rock formations under high pressure to release and pump natural gas to the surface.
Opponents in Quebec and elsewhere in North America have raised an outcry over the process, claiming there are many documented cases of contaminated groundwater, health problems and air pollution directly arising from fracking. Last March, the Quebec government froze fracking exploration until a full study into the environmental effects of the procedure is concluded. That could take up to two years.
But the gas industry is responding with its stance that a growing number of scientific and government studies confirm that fracking is safe when done correctly, and that the benefits – economic development, jobs and access to new sources of natural gas – far outweigh the drawbacks. Still, companies concede there is a long road ahead before they'll be in a position to pump up gas from dense layers of shale deep beneath the lowlands of the St. Lawrence River and other areas.
"A great deal of wind was taken out the sails but we're still moving forward, a little more slowly and more cautiously," Peter Dorrins, president and chief operating officer of Quebec City-based Junex Inc., a key shale gas player, said in an interview Monday after a presentation at the Quebec Oil and Gas Association's annual conference. Mr. Dorrins said it will likely take three or four years before the industry actually reaches the production stage, assuming it gets the green light from the Quebec government once the environmental review is completed.
Chris Tucker of the U.S. industry lobby group Energy In Depth – which has been working with the Canadian industry – outlined to the conference on Monday a campaign to counter what he says are the outright falsehoods contained in the popular feature-length documentary GasLand. He said he has visited 20 states to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to what he says are false claims in the film, such as that the industry is unregulated or that fracking is a new, untested and unsafe technology.
Outside the hotel where association members and guests gathered, a group of about 100 demonstrators vowed they will step up their fight against the shale gas industry.
These days there has been virtually no shale-gas-related activity in Quebec despite the fact that – while no new drilling is allowed – existing wells are permitted to continue operating under certain guidelines, said Ken Chernin, an analyst with Jennings Capital in Halifax.
"That's not a positive in my mind," he said.
Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, the head of the association, said at a breakfast speech that the industry has to be patient and wait it out while the provincial environmental committee conducts its inquiry.
Meanwhile, Kevin Heffernan, vice-president of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas, said in a presentation that the industry has learned from the public backlash in Quebec and elsewhere.
"We are a much more transparent industry than we were five years ago," he said.