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A shale-gas drilling rig in Pennsylvania

Andrew Harrer

Shale gas exploration in Quebec has been put on hold until a full environmental study can be done on a controversial drilling technique.

The provincial government announced the decision Tuesday just minutes after an environmental assessment board called for a full evaluation of potential risks involved in the drilling and extraction of natural gas from the shale rock formation near populated areas along the Saint-Lawrence River.

"Such an evaluation is an absolute must not only for an informed decision-making process but also for better social acceptability," the board's report concluded.

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The board said it had insufficient information to allow drilling to continue and urged the government to take the time to compile and examine the scientific data to help define stricter rules.

"We are committed to making sure that it is done properly or it won't be done at all," Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Arcand told a news conference. "Quebeckers must understand that we will not accept any compromises especially when it involves health and safety as well as respect for the environment. And we will take whatever time is needed to fulfill these conditions."

The assessment board also proposed that further exploration and development be authorized exclusively by the Ministry of the Environment. That would exclude the Ministry of Natural Resources from the process, to ensure that environmental concerns are clearly defined before a drilling permit is issued.

Mr. Arcand said he will also follow the board's recommendation calling for greater community involvement in planning the development of a shale gas industry in Quebec. He said communities will be well informed about potential consequences of proceeding with current natural gas drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing.

Fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling technique in which water and sand laced with chemicals are injected into a rock formation under high pressure, to release and pump natural gas to the surface.

Mr. Arcand said he will follow the board's recommendation that fracking be authorized only where environmental evaluations are conducted. Exploration work could continue but without fracking, the minister said.

The process poses a contaminant risk to underground drinking-water supplies and has raised serious concerns among local residents.

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The government has awarded permits for 31 drilling sites. Fracking has taken place on 18 sites where there have been reports of a number of violations of environmental regulations, sparking an uproar in some municipalities.

Lucien Bouchard, chief spokesman for the provincial oil and gas association, said recently that the industry would abide by the assessment board's recommendations and work closely with communities to assure them that health and safety concerns would be addressed.

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