Chantal Beauregard Favreau, the mayor of Béthanie, Que., takes notes in a brown book as she stands beside a lush yellow canola field near Rosemary, a village in southern Alberta. The field is irrigated and she, along with other visitors from Quebec, are quizzing Rosemary's farmers and ranchers about the quality of the water.
Is it, they want to know, ever contaminated because of natural gas activity?
Ms. Favreau and 11 other Quebeckers concerned about natural gas production methods are in Alberta this week on a fact-finding mission paid for by the energy industry. Connecting Quebeckers directly with Alberta farmers who have 40 years experience dealing with oil and gas companies is a fresh idea for an industry struggling to win over critics in the east – and pave the way for expansion of the industry into Quebec.
While the visitors are herded on and off a bus to see crops, well sites, and cows being milked, they are free to quiz Rosemary's locals with limited interference from those picking up the tab.
The energy industry must convince people like Ms. Favreau that it can exploit Quebec's vast natural gas reserves without ruining the environment and intruding on their property. The St. Lawrence Lowlands sits atop the Utica shale play, along with other prospective natural gas fields. But with a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in place, Quebec's natural gas industry has been iced.
"There are worries in our communities about the protection of our water, our land," she says, after a stop at Rommenbutte Holsteins, a dairy operation that belongs to one of the group's ranching escorts.
The Rosemary area is not the best showcase for the safety of fracking practices, since it largely hosts older, conventionally drilled wells. The group visited the fracking-intensive area on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the group meets with quasi-government organizations including the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
Ms. Favreau said she has "never really heard any horror stories" about Alberta's natural gas industry, but wondered if it was because there was nothing to hear or that problems are being concealed.
Water is her focus. "If it is a concern, if there are any problems; and when there is an incident, how it is taken care of by the companies, by the farmers themselves, by the insurance companies or the governments?" Ms. Favreau asked.
Members of the Quebec group admit they lack information about the natural gas industry. They said much of their information comes from controversies in the United States, and the Alberta trip appealed to them as a way to learn about activity in Canada.
Indeed, Quebec is short on natural gas experience. There are only 31 shale gas wells in Quebec, and hydraulic fracturing techniques were used in only 10 of those, said Mario Lévesque, president of the Oil and Gas Services Association of Quebec. His organization took out newspaper ads in Quebec searching for people to join the Alberta tour, and also helped pay for the trip.
Michael Binnion heads Questerre Energy Corp., which has rights to 350,000 acres in Quebec and is partnered with Talisman Energy Inc. Questerre also chipped in to cover the bill, and while Mr. Binnion spent time over dinner pitching one of the Quebec delegates on the natural gas industry, he approved of the way the Rosemary stop was designed.
"Get everyone out of the way, and let the Quebec farmers talk to Alberta farmers," he said as the tour stopped in at an alfalfa field to inspect a bee operation. "Let them see and hear for themselves what it is like to be a farmer with oil and gas operations."
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the major oil and gas lobby group, also helped over the cost of the trip. (One Quebec mayor paid his own way in order to avoid any suggestion of bias).