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Natural gas may be cheap and clean, but Quebec still holds a grudge

Sophie Brochu was all smiles when she sat down to testify at Quebec's roving commission on the province's energy stakes, but in a flash, sparks started flying between the president and CEO of Gaz Métro and the commission's co-chair Normand Mousseau.

She had been told by the commission's staff she had 15 minutes to make her case. But he curtly retorted she had 10. Should she spill over and leave no time for questions, Mr. Mousseau implied, that would cast the province's biggest gas distributor in a bad light. It was just a skirmish, really, and yet the incident was telling. In the land of hydroelectricity, natural gas is not cordially welcomed.

Through the public consultation now under way, the Quebec government is redrawing its energy policy with an eye to reducing its carbon footprint and to decreasing its reliance on imported oil. The Parti Québécois upped the ante on the Liberals with an ambitious promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2020. To keep its word, the PQ government is championing projects that strike the imagination of voters. Electrifying the province's transportation means is all the buzz. So is pumping oil out of Quebec soil even if both of those grand schemes will take at least a decade to materialize.

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This environmental bias supersedes economic considerations, which are ignored, Ms. Brochu lamented. And it is leading to an energy planning exercise whose conclusions appear foregone. So just as there is a Charter of Quebec Values, you can also draw a Charter of Quebec Energies – with what is blessed, and what isn't.

Natural gas is the cheapest form of energy. It also produces less greenhouse gases and less pollution than the fuel oil that heats houses and plants or the gasoline that powers trucks and cars. This explains why Transport Robert has converted close to 125 of the trucks in its fleet to natural gas. And yet natural gas advocates face an uphill battle in Quebec following controversies that left their mark.

There was the ill-fated gas powered thermal plant that Jean Charest's Liberal government clumsily promoted in the early 2000s. Environmentalists assailed the project, arguing the plant would spout too much gas emissions, and the Liberals backed down after Quebeckers took to the streets. There was the unmannerly way in which the shale gas exploration industry bulldozed its way in the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The public backlash was so strong it led to a suspension and then an outright moratorium on the "fracking" techniques used to recover gas and oil by breaking rock with a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals.

This has left a legacy. The 86-page consultation paper that set the table for the province's public consultation calls for heating an apartment with electricity instead of gas, without mentioning that the heating bill would jump by an estimated 40 per cent. The same document also states that it's impossible to distinguish shale gas from conventional gas in the natural gas Quebec imports; by consuming more natural gas, the province would de facto encourage an energy source that a "number of researchers" view as being "as noxious as coal from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions."

In the PQ's twisted logic, oil should be as conspicuous as natural gas, but astonishingly, it isn't. Quebec's most promising crude oil deposit is believed to be on Anticosti Island, but its profitability has been largely overblown, according to Marc Durand, a retired University du Québec à Montréal geology professor who analyzed similar deposits.

Anticosti promoters have exaggerated the oil recuperation rate by a wide margin, he argues. To extract that crude, producers would need to dig over 12,000 wells, likely by using fracking techniques. Given higher transportation costs, it could cost as much as $120-billion to extract $40-billion worth of oil assuming it trades at $100 (U.S.) per barrel, according his calculations. "It's a great illusion," said Mr. Durand.

Wind power has also received the commendation of the green PQ government, even if this renewable energy is costly and unneeded. Quebec just forced its state-owned electricity supplier to contract an additional 800 MW of wind power, even if Hydro-Québec is already swimming in surpluses. Those surpluses will cost at least $1.5-billion over the next seven years, an expense that will be passed on to Quebeckers through higher electricity bills. But apparently, giving work to the windmill industry in the high-unemployment Bas-du-Fleuve and Gaspé regions is priceless.

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Really, there is no need to wait for Quebec's new energy policy. Looking at the commission's work, you can already guess what the dos and don'ts of the province's energy charter will be.

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More

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